'Schooled': TV Review
AJ Michalka's Lainey gets her own spinoff from 'The Goldbergs' with a '90s-set comedy that lacks the heart of ABC's original series.
Nearly a year after it partially debuted as a back-door spinoff of The Goldbergs, and after several waves of tinkering and reconceptualizing, Schooled premieres on ABC on Wednesday (Jan. 9). The most generous assessment based on its first full episode is that the clunky comedy spinoff remains very much a work-in-progress.
The simplest way to explain where Schooled is initially failing is to point clearly to the unlikely way The Goldbergs generally succeeds: The Goldbergs is a show that celebrates '80s nostalgia in a manner that can frequently descend into glib reference-making, but because it's able to use creator Adam F. Goldberg as its central figure and as the nexus from which all the reference-making spreads, it usually feels earned. The Goldbergs is fun because it's a nonstop '80s-quoting machine. It's a good show because beneath that very superficial hook it's deeply personal.
Schooled, at least thus far, is not, and it's that lack of center that still needs tinkering.
Last January's pilot for Schooled focused on Tim Meadows' Principal Glascott and Bryan Callen's Coach Mellor, still teaching at William Penn Academy in 1990-something. Somewhere along the line, there was a realization that building a spinoff around two characters who literally didn't have first names — it's a running joke in Schooled, though after the pilot both characters now do, indeed, have first names — was questionable.
Instead, Schooled now focuses on Lainey Lewis (AJ Michalka), formerly best known as the tart and weirdly patient girlfriend to Troy Gentile's Barry on The Goldbergs. In what represents several minor Goldbergs spoilers, Lainey finds herself in 1990-something facing a dead-end musical career and in need of gainful employment. Desperate for work and assisted by a desperate Goldbergs crossover cameo, Lainey gets a gig as music teacher at William Penn Academy, working with Principal Glascott, Coach Mellor and eventually a character played by Jane the Virgin favorite Brett Dier, who isn't in the premiere. With the help of one plucky student played by American X Factor veteran Rachel Crow, Lainey is about to discover that being a teacher isn't the worst fate in the history of humanity, which is just the kind of very, very short emotional journey that can fuel a debut episode and then force a show to figure out where it goes next. Critics were only sent one episode of Schooled.
It was easy to see why The Goldbergs latched onto Lainey, and particularly onto Michalka, and gradually elevated her from guest star into a series regular. In making Lainey the focus of her own show, though, creators Goldberg and Marc Firek face a challenge similar to the one Kenya Barris encountered in giving Yara Shahidi's Zoey her own spinoff from Black-ish. Lainey's a good character and a funny character, but she's a character defined almost completely by her relationship to two characters from The Goldbergs (three if you include David Koechner as Lainey's father). Lainey has an interactive personality, not an individual personality, and large chunks of the premiere of Schooled are other characters remembering things about how Lainey used to be in high school that have no relevance to how the character has been utilized for most of her Goldbergs run. On The Goldbergs, was Lainey an authority-defying rebel who frequently overslept and missed the start of the school day? Maybe? If you say so?
Roughly a third of the premiere of Schooled is the uncomfortable duality of Lainey being introduced as simultaneously a character we're expected to know and a character we've basically never met before. As good as Michalka can be — check out the feature Support the Girls if you haven't already — this isn't a funny process and nobody has even attempted to make Crow's Felicia a funny character in her own right. Throw in a fittingly anti-chronological main storyline in which Lainey has to prepare her class for what is described multiple times as "the fall doo-wop concert" even though the opening voiceover says it's January…. Well, that's probably the sort of thing fans of The Goldbergs have learned to ignore, or even embrace, over the years, just as you should probably ignore that the opening voiceover begins with "Ah, the '90s" playing over an image of a TV show that premiered in 1985 (albeit one that got a short-lived spinoff in the '90s).
A lot of the rest of the premiere is dedicated to transitioning Callen's gym teacher/coach from a barking comic foil in too-tight shorts into a more versatile character capable of co-supporting his own show. Callen is good and The Goldbergs already did an OK job of humanizing Coach Mellor, but his premiere storyline about teaching an undersized slam-dunking basketball player — with a twist! — to understand teamwork is woefully thin and the episode-ending attempt at that Goldbergs-style personal connection is a reach. Meadows' Glascott is wasted as an expositional device telling Lainey things about herself for the benefit of the audience. I assume they'll do better by the character and by Meadows in later episodes. Nobody else initially seems to be in the show.
Schooled isn't quite as reference-obsessed as The Goldbergs, which I guess reflects the different perspectives of its main characters. Lainey's history and specific teaching job could mean that Schooled will focus more on '90s music in the way The Goldbergs is more focused on movies and TV of the '80s? If that's the case, Schooled could maybe regret throwing down the gauntlet with an "I Believe I Can Fly"-centric episode airing within a week of Surviving R. Kelly. [UPDATE: The "I Believe I Can Fly" musical cue was removed from the Schooled pilot shortly before air. It was still in the screener available for critics less than 24 hours before premiere.]
Of course, I didn't like The Goldbergs very much when it premiered. I thought it was shallow and shout-y. It's still sometimes those things. More often, Adam F. Goldberg has grounded the show in his own past and in his love for the characters based on his own family and friends. Maybe the Adam F. Goldberg Expanded Sympathetic Universe will grow to include events from a decade later involving people and a time period he wasn't as closely tied to? So far, though, Schooled is still having trouble finding its replacement for the heart and sense of family that make the original series work.
Cast: AJ Michalka, Tim Meadows, Bryan Callen, Rachel Crow
Creators: Adam F. Goldberg & Marc Firek
Airs Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m. ET/PT on ABC, premiering Jan. 9.