'I Feel Bad': TV Review

You'll feel not-so-bad about checking this one out.
10/4/2018

NBC's new family/workplace comedy hybrid features a strong lead performance by Sarayu Blue and has potential to become something better.

NBC's I Feel Bad is plagued with a bad title, an unfunny advertising campaign and the general feel of a show that belongs on another network. Don't get too hung up on those superficial blemishes and it can be graded on a curve as one of the fall's more promising broadcast offerings, a comedy with several important things going for it and some flaws that feel fixable.

Based to some degree on Orli Auslander's I Feel Bad: All Day. Every Day. About Everything, I Feel Bad was created for NBC by Aseem Batra, yet has the sort of inclusive, multi-generational, single-cam-family-comedy vibe that has become an ABC hallmark in recent years. That's the kind of potential it has.

Sarayu Blue stars as Emet, who feels bad because she has impossibly high standards for her personal and professional life and a tendency to beat herself up when she falls short of those standards. At home, she has a loving-yet-insecure husband (Paul Adelstein's David), three kids (Rahm Braslaw's Louie, Lily Rose Silver's Lily and a baby played by multiple infants) and her ubiquitous parents (Brian George's Sonny and Madhur Jaffrey's Maya), all demanding what little time she has when she gets home from her job as head artist at a video game. She's basically a parent at work as well, struggling to wrangle the variably juvenile Norman (Zach Cherry), Chewy (James Buckley) and Grif (Johnny Pemberton).

Doing a true home/workplace hybrid comedy seems like it ought to be a pretty intuitive thing, until you actually stop and think about how many domestic or family comedies ignore the workplace entirely or how many workplace comedies rarely go home with their characters. Through its first three episodes, two directed with frantic energy by Julie Anne Robinson, one can sense I Feel Bad working through a lot of these challenges.

It helps that the series isn't conflicted on who its focal character is. Emet is our apologetically unapologetic heroine, and it's her work/life balance that we're meant to see as the endangered point of conflict for the show. It's her voice, both in an on-camera perspective and in voiceovers, that steers the action.

Why, then, do the writers feel that Emet's workplace stooges require occasional B-stories that happen out of range of Emet's awareness? It's one thing to show how the guys are responding to Emet's weekly crisis or insecurity in ways she can't see, but the third episode has the guys attempting a clandestine action to get access to the office's rooftop deck and it's an arc that only thematically relates to Emet's storyline and it's an instant and easy warning that these characters don't work on their own, at least not yet. It's like how Dre's co-workers on ABC's Black-ish, a show that could be a template for I Feel Bad, are charming personifications of institutionalized racism when Dre is around, which doesn't mean that they're fully enough realized as characters to be treated as stand-alone characters.

You can see the office work-in-progress in how the guys are being repositioned from being creepy and unpleasant in the pilot to simply being socially awkward as the show moves forward. That's part of why Zach Cherry, also currently stealing scenes on Lifetime's You, has the character who is most immediately established and funny, because his incompletely understood feminism is well-intentioned and easy to gently chide. In the pilot, Grif comes across as a weird sexual predator, which would be OK if I Feel Bad wanted to be doing some sort of actual commentary on the video game industry and the male attitudes it can sometimes enable, but since it isn't, it's both better and safer that Grif is transitioned almost immediately to the sort of immature man-boy Pemberton played well on Fox's Son of Zorn and on NBC's Superstore.

It doesn't help that the pilot finds Emet walking in and demanding of her co-workers, "I'm still doable, right?" She doesn't do anything of the sort in subsequent episodes, nor does she subject them to videos of her daughter's sexually inappropriate dancing. This is how shows are supposed to progress, and credit to NBC for getting three episodes to critics ahead of the show's sneak premiere, because they show growth.

The domestic side of the story also shows evidence of evolving. One of the things ABC's domestic comedies have done tremendously is craft married couples who bicker believably and yet still read as loving and nurturing. I Feel Bad is pushing for something similar with Adelstein exhibiting schlubby likability without shying from making Paul needy and imperfect. There's a mellowing to how Emet's parents are being presented, with a shading more toward ethnic wackiness in the first half-hour before playing against those caricatures at times in later episodes, leaving no doubt that George and Jaffrey are plenty comfortable with either mode.

I'm not sure that I Feel Bad has exactly decided how it wants to pitch the show's ethnic specificity, and that can give the impression that the series isn't sure of its overall voice. There's definitely layering and nuancing that can still occur, but Emet's voice and especially Blue's performance have reached that point at which, if the show grows around them, it could eventually become something good. The second episode, in which Emet "cheats" on her family by housesitting for the quieter residence next door, shows Blue's comfort with physical comedy and embracing Emet's silliness and her own selfishness. I almost think that if this episode had aired first, some of the discordant elements of the pilot might have played better? That might have raised confusion with a couple supporting characters who seem to get phased out after the pilot? Maybe?

It isn't like the pilot of I Feel Bad is a disaster, nor like the second and third episodes find a show locked in and on track for good. All three episodes have just enough working and just enough shifting and improving for me to want to stick with this one for a while. In this fall of broadcast mediocrities, that's almost a triumph.

Cast: Sarayu Blue, Paul Adelstein, James Buckley, Zach Cherry, Brian George, Madhur Jaffrey, Johnny Pemberton
Creator: Aseem Batra
Special premiere: Wednesday, 10 p.m. ET/PT
Airs: Thursdays, 9:30 p.m. ET/PT starting Oct. 4
(NBC)