'The Great Indoors': TV Review

The Great Indoors - H 2016
Cliff Lipson/CBS
Millennial minstrelsy.

Joel McHale's new comedy is the latest CBS project to focus on how confusing millennials are.

Les Moonves may insist that CBS is not only a network for old viewers, and the numbers may back up that claim. But there's no simpler way to look old and out-of-touch than offering up a slate of programming dedicated to perplexity at the high jinks of a younger generation.

This fall, confusion about millennials has become as much a part of CBS' DNA as Clinton panic to Fox News, obnoxiously diminutive houses to HGTV or Axe Body Spray to Spike.

Bull and Kevin Can Wait both had main characters struggling to fathom millennials, with their apps and knit caps and confusing behaviors, in their pilots. Survivor has built an entire season around decrepit corpses in their 30s, 40s and 50s trying to come to terms with those Snapchatting whippersnappers and their multiscreen experiences and participation trophies.

Participation trophies play an important role in the piece de resistance of CBS' season of juvenile paranoia: the new comedy The Great Indoors. Through the two episodes made available to critics, the workplace comedy finds a promising cast, headed by Joel McHale and Stephen Fry as the resident geriatrics, trapped in a malaise of millennial minstrelsy.

Created by Mike Gibbons (Tosh.0), The Great Indoors stars McHale as Jack, a lone-wolf adventure writer for Outdoor Limits magazine. More comfortable living among grizzly bears or climbing perilous mountains than working in an office, Jack is summoned by his friend and boss Roland (Fry), another adventuring legend, and is told that the magazine is going under and he's being forced to supervise the web team. (Eagle-eyed viewers will remember that this was essentially the introductory plot of ABC's Last Man Standing.) Jack now finds himself working under Roland's daughter Brooke (Susannah Fielding), with whom he had a memorable one-night stand, and trying to learn to speak the same language as pesky millennials Clark (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), Emma (Christine Ko) and Mason (Shaun Brown).

Clark is an online-content curator who idolizes Jack, but has no outdoors experience. He hosts a podcast, even though he has nothing to say. As millennials do. Emma is a social influencer with an affectless voice, a deep well of entitlement and withering scorn for Jack's dated approach to everything. As millennials have. And Mason is a digital conversation specialist with an apparently fluid, or at least secretive, sexuality. As millennials have. They're all amenable to listicles and going to HR whenever they're offended. Typical millennials.

Jack is a self-obsessed dinosaur. His new charges are all self-obsessed infants. The assumption appears to have been that if they just talk exclusively about their generational differences, that hilarity would ensue. It does not. I'd hoped after the pilot that The Great Indoors would then rapidly settle into living its premise, not talking about it. It does not.

For two episodes, Jack's dialogue works in very few modes. A third of his lines are pleas to be told he's not hopelessly lost in a modern world; a third are stepped-in-it obtuseness, like when he describes his ursine cohabitation by imploring, "You guys don't know what it's like to look at a creature that is the last of its kind"; and a third are stereotypically demeaning his new underlings by saying things like, "You guys always expect work to be fun!" or "What is it with these kids? They think their most private things are everybody's business."

And, in turn, his co-workers are stuck either insulting Jack's age with would-they-really-make-that-reference remarks like, "You're like the human version of dial-up," or telling him he's ready to "Blockbuster and chill" or else reinforcing Jack's stereotyping by expecting work to be fun or thinking their most private things are everybody's business.

Jack's point of view is that the millennials are all baffling and a bit pathetic, but it would be a mistake to think The Great Indoors is somehow validating his contempt. Jack's a relic, and there's no question that he's been left behind, but whereas The Great Indoors finds little to celebrate about the millennials and their peculiarities other than their inherent correctness about the speed of contemporary life, some of Jack's dated values are presented as noble and individualistic, like the Marlboro Man in the Land of the Vapers.

Jack isn't completely a multicam version of Jeff Winger, but like McHale's Community character, no matter how oblivious Jack gets and no matter how blind he is to his occasional cruelty, his withering scorn still steers the show. McHale's gift with sarcasm makes some of the stale punchlines work, and he's always willing to look like a fool, as long as he simultaneously looks good doing it, like when he signs up for a dating app and posts only topless pictures to showcase his physique. "Yes, I'm a idiot who doesn't tweet," the quintessential McHale character seems to be saying, "but I'm a idiot who does crunches." McHale and Fry, who masterfully wrings chuckles from pauses or a pretentious quotation, also have a generation gap between them, but their interactions aren't characterized by a repetition of cliches, and thus his scenes have an easy charm the rest of the show lacks.

This isn't the project that will make you see Mintz-Plasse without instantly thinking, "McLovin," but I was reminded several times of how good he is in this obsequious mode. Too often Mintz-Plasse does or is given more than the joke requires — a good physical bit undermined by on-the-nose dialogue or a clever quip embellished with needless flailing — but he also got my biggest laugh in two episodes and makes Clark perhaps the show's most sympathetic character. Ko and Brown will benefit from having more than one note to play, but neither plays that one note poorly.

Even in its grating superficiality, the show that The Great Indoors most reminded me of should give some hope to CBS. When it premiered back in 2007, The Big Bang Theory had one of the worst pilots of that fall and was, for much of its first season, pretty awful. Every line from Leonard and Sheldon was contemptuous nerd-baiting, and every line from Penny was about her being a dumb blonde. The show was so desperate to affirm its premise that it couldn't be funny or play to its relationships. Eventually, it found groupings that worked and found warmth between characters, and it became both a smash hit and, often, a good show.

I see hints of that in the first two episodes of The Great Indoors. The workplace setting has potential, and there are times that the actors are being funny, even if what they're being asked to do is just soullessly embody a BuzzFeed survey. I was patient with The Big Bang Theory, and it paid off, but The Great Indoors has to move beyond its "Gen-Xers are like this"/"Millennials are like that" binary, and it has to do that fast. Airing after The Big Bang Theory may give it that time.

Cast: Joel McHale, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Susannah Fielding, Christine Ko, Shaun Brown, Stephen Fry, Chris Williams
Creator: Mike Gibbons
Premieres: Thursday, 8:30 p.m. ET/PT (CBS)