'Superior Donuts': TV Review

Superior Donuts - Jermaine Fowler - Judd Hirsch - Still - 2016
Michael Yarish/CBS
More OK than superior.

Jermaine Fowler joins sitcom veterans Judd Hirsch and Katey Sagal in a CBS comedy with some potential.

"Based on the play by Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning writer Tracy Letts" isn't the kind of credit you expect to see when you're settling in to watch a network multicamera sitcom, and it also raises certain expectations that CBS' Superior Donuts isn't quite prepared to meet. There isn't much of the August: Osage County and Killer Joe writer's DNA in the new series, but after three episodes I'm prepared to say that there's potential here, or at least a relative amount of potential compared to CBS' other 2016-17 multicam comedies.

Adapted from the stage to the soundstage by Bob Daily, Neil Goldman and Garrett Donovan, Superior Donuts is the story of Arthur Przybyszewski (Judd Hirsch), longtime proprietor of a donut shop doing sluggish business in a gentrifying Chicago neighborhood. Arthur has a very set way of doing things and a dwindling group of reliable customers, including local cop Randy (Katey Sagal), underemployed jack-of-no-trades Tush (David Koechner), object-of-ridicule millennial Maya (Anna Baryshnikov — yes, that Baryshnikov) and local dry cleaner and real estate vulture Fawz (Maz Jobrani), who wants nothing more than to buy Arthur out and replace Superior Donuts with a chain store.

Enter Franco (Jermaine Fowler), a job-seeking artist with crazy ideas about using social media and new donut flavors to help the store. Racial and generational culture clashes ensue.

Critics were sent three episodes of Superior Donuts and, as one would ideally want to see, there's improvement across those episodes.

The pilot, which was recast and reshot around Fowler, will get a special Thursday airing and feels like a messy work-in-progress. I'd probably recommend skipping it entirely and checking the show out in its Monday 9 p.m. slot, unless you think you won't be able to figure out how an "older white man hires younger black man to work with him" premise came about. The pilot is marred by a repetitive structure — Franco's hired, he's fired, he's hired, whatever! — and by Fowler's struggles to properly pitch a performance in the contained space, especially opposite multicam veterans like Hirsch and Sagal.

The second episode, though, finds Fowler instantly more comfortable, evening out the mugging and shouting and settling into an entirely likable performance. That, then, exposes the laziness of the episode's approach to the generational divide, especially once Franco's Sriracha-glazed donuts become a sensation and hipsters start pouring into the place. This is a problem that CBS' The Great Indoors still hasn't conquered after 10-plus episodes: that saying "adult coloring book" or acknowledging that a guy with a beard has a beard is pretty much the bargain basement of observational humor, even if you can make an audience laugh, and that the words "Instagram" and "Twitter" shouldn't be the totality of a punchline either. By the time Arthur gets around to wailing, "Everything is changing, I feel like a relic from another time," you'll feel like he's around 20 minutes too late to this realization.

Finally, in the third episode, Fowler's performance is locked in and the millennial jokes are kept to a minimum and Superior Donuts makes an attempt to deal with gun ownership in a nuanced and not schtick-y way and I appreciated the effort, even if I wanted more laughs.

That's a growth chart with a lot of room still to build, but evidence of improvement. Fowler is a lively and engaged lead, and you can see why the producers wanted to keep him as the heart of the show. Hirsch and Sagal nail their punchlines with precision and could be even better if their characters are given the chance to be more than just "grumpy old man" and "saucy police officer," respectively. Jobrani and Baryshnikov are still waiting for their roles to progress past a casting logline, and Koechner's Tush is a bit too much of a wacky sitcom neighbor stranded on a bakery counter booth. All three actors know what they're doing and could be pieces of what would instantly be a solid ensemble.

Around that ensemble, the show has a good, simple backdrop for an old-fashioned watering hole comedy in the Cheers vein, with only a couple of sets and very little unnecessary pretense. You can't convincingly make those sets feel Chicago-y, but the dialogue and characters keep the location relevant in a way that many multicams struggle with.

So there's upside to Superior Donuts, though whether that upside matches its lofty literary pedigree or whether its progression along its learning curve is coming fast enough is less clear.

Cast: Jermaine Fowler, Judd Hirsch, Katey Sagal, David Koechner, Maz Jobrani, Anna Baryshnikov, Darien Sills-Evans, Rell Battle
Creators: Adapted by Bob Daily, Neil Goldman and Garrett Donovan from the play by Tracy Letts
Premieres: Thursday, 8:30 p.m. ET/PT, then airs Mondays, 9 p.m. (CBS)