'Single Parents': TV Review

Watch 'Catastrophe' instead.
9/26/2018

Comedies about parenting are generally not good, especially on broadcast television — and ABC's new series continues the trend, despite a few laughs.

When Liz Meriwether created New Girl in 2011 it was one of those moments when an ebullient and funny person got a break in network television and was going to pump some life into the staid TV world with a young, fresh take on, well, being young and hip and snarky and whatever else. It was good, funny and even when it eventually became a little tired representing that lifestyle over, what, nearly seven full seasons and 146 episodes, nobody really takes offense to new variations on old themes until they all get played out and everybody starts dating or marrying each other, sometimes multiple times over, but network television being what it is, that cash cow must be milked.

So New Girl got multiple seasons, became a little tired, had some leaps and finally was put out to pasture.

Besides, something fresher and funnier inevitably comes along and everybody gets attracted to that without dismissing its retreading familiar territory. There's always a free pass given in the "young people doing crazy things" genre.

And while it's only natural, given the final episodes of New Girl that revolved around children — and given the fact that Meriwether herself is now a mom — that the next step would be a new show, Single Parents on ABCabout growing up (with kids), but without being so grown-up as to be, you know, normal boring parents.

Except that network shows about kids and parenting, no matter the approach, have a whiff of overfamiliarity. And there's no getting around the fact that there's less indulgence granted when young writers who celebrate being young and free from responsibility then get a bit older and find excitement in the next phase, which basically consists of all the things they made fun of prior. It's like, oh, that's not cool — until it happens to me. 

Single Parents (which Meriwether created with New Girl and SNL scribe J.J. Philbin) not only suffers from that "let me tell you what parenting is like" idea (again, much less tolerable than the next generation writing about their coming- of-age, for some reason), but also leans into the notion that making it messed-up and nonconformist is somehow more original, when it's not. This being network television, even that conceit in Single Parents is not allowed to be explored to its fullest and its most boundary-pushing — there's so much icky schmaltz in the final minutes of the Single Parents pilot, covering the sarcasm and jadedness that came before it, that there's actually a Moana sing-along.

Ugh.

Yeah, we get it because we've been shown it several hundred times before — growing older and becoming a parent kind of sucks because you're not on Tinder and getting drunk all the time. But it's also kind of cool because, well, look how adorable these kids are. Single Parents shouldn't be saddled with breaking new ground in a genre so played out you can see the jokes coming before they start and spout the punch line before they end — but neither should it be celebrated as some fresh take.

Very few series know how to really be great in this genre — Amazon's Catastrophe is a brilliant example of how to do it with originality — but Single Parents feels like a comedy that goes for simple snark and believes it's a little more clever than it really is, but then had a bunch of network notes stuck to it about softening those right angles.

The result is a kind of paint-by-numbers approach meant to be, uh, different? All the parents here are single — how they got that way isn't really confusing but neither is it really interesting. Taran Killam is Will, a super into-it dad parenting a young daughter new to the school. He hasn't had sex in five years. He's just trying to be the perfect dad.

Leighton Meester (see, everybody grows up and becomes a parent) is Angie, who has a son who talks like he's 30, just like all the other precocious kids do on Single Parents because it's a network comedy. Brad Garrett plays Douglas, the older dad with Trump-supporter tendencies and all those clueless-entitled-white-guy traits so easily mined for humor. Douglas has twin girls — the 26-year-old he married died suddenly, so here he is, the fish out of water.

Douglas and Angie are having none of Will trying to be the overbearing room parent.

"There's no way we're doing anything you want," Douglas tells Will. Angie chimes in to hammer home the show's premise: "We're single parents. We don't volunteer. We just try and survive until a time in the day when it's appropriate to open wine."

Also joining this tribe are Kimrie Lewis as Poppy, an African-American woman with a nebulously gay son, and Jake Choi as Miggy, an Asian-American sneaker-loving, skewed-hat-wearing hipster with a newborn. He doesn't really belong in the school-age storyline, of course, but he's friends with Poppy, for whatever that's worth. That's your thrown-together group of parents. For some unexplainable reason, Poppy's nebulously gay son likes crotchety, conservative Douglas. For some reason Douglas hangs out with Poppy, who apparently runs a bookstore (ABC offered up only one episode, as is standard for most new network shows). "Why does every book have to be about yoga and menopause?" Douglas wonders. "Douglas, you are why we march," is the response.

See? Easy.

There's a whole thing in the pilot about the grumpier single parents trying to save Will from himself in one big act of (possibly network-mandated) empathy. None of this rings very true, of course. It's not original and, at best, it's mildly funny when it tackles something familiar and easy. Look, even the hilarious and talented Sharon Horgan, who helped mastermind Catastrophe (with Rob Delaney) couldn't make lightning strike twice with Motherland in Britain (via Sundance Now). And that was a series that very deliberately leaned in and stayed strong on the bitterness angle, shooting for hard-won edgy laughs. But it missed, often badly, because it tried too hard and the targets were all just too familiar.

So, it happens. And, in the case of Single Parents, tossing a Moana song on top doesn't help. Looking for originality and real laughter in a parenting series is very difficult, but bad shows can run a long time on broadcast television, so who knows. Besides, this is only the pilot. Maybe Single Parents eventually finds itself. 

Cast: Taran Killam, Leighton Meester, Kimrie Lewis, Brad Garrett, Jake Choi, Marlow Barkley, Tyler Wladis, Devin Trey Campbell, Mia Allan, Ella Allan

Created and written by: Elizabeth Meriwether, J.J. Philbin

Premieres Sept. 26, 9:30 p.m., on ABC.