Surviving Jack: TV Review

Carin Baer/FOX
A coming-of-age story (yes, voiceover narration) about a freshman boy navigating the troubling world of high school while also adjusting to the fact that his father is now in charge of the kids. It's funnier than the clips suggest and a pleasant surprise late in the season.

Fox's latest sitcom is funnier than expected and worth a look tonight, but the network's erratic behavior regarding its comedies is something of a concern.

First things first: Surviving Jack, Fox's latest comedy, is funnier than you probably think it will be. It features Christopher Meloni (Law & Order: Special Victim’s Unit), proving he's both adept and surprisingly nimble at this whole comedy thing. And it also presents writer and series creator Justin Halpern ($#*! My Dad Says) with a sitcom do-over. It also has a voiceover narration (sigh).

Given all of that, Surviving Jack should be, like so many other sitcoms of its ilk, something less. But the pilot is funny, Meloni holds the whole thing together and even the voiceover works -- despite there needing to be, at the very least, a five-season moratorium on that little conceit.

Now that we've established that you should watch (or record) the show tonight, here are a few caveats. One, even in this new world of year-round programming, there's still something worrisome about a series premiering in very late March. It's natural to wonder how enthused Fox is about what it has. One step beyond that is the erratic nature of Fox's comedy judgment. No doubt outside pressure almost forced the network to love the heinously bad Dads, but it loved that sad 30-minute endurance test nonetheless. In addition, Fox did no justice at all to Enlisted, a far superior comedy and one of the funniest network shows you don’t seem to be watching.

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In the plus column, the network did go with Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which was one of the biggest comedy surprises of the season. But a little consistency would be nice.

So what do we have here in Surviving Jack? Well, the coming-of-age series is based on Halpern's book I Suck At Girls, and is set in the 1990s (it can only hope to be as funny and successful as ABC's coming-of-age comedy The Goldbergs, which is set in the 1980s). Jack Dunlevy (Meloni) is a successful doctor and no-nonsense father who supports the decision of wife, Joanne (Rachael Harris, The Hangover), to get her law degree. That puts Jack in charge of the kids, which sometimes tests his "I got this" belief in his own capabilities with bluntness and a raised eyebrow.

Surviving Jack mostly focuses on Frankie (Connor Buckley), who's entering his freshman year of high school. He's not very confident or socially adept, but he grew 10 inches over the summer and threw a no-hitter for his baseball team. And, much to his surprise, he's getting noticed by girls.

There’s also 17-year-old Rachel (Claudia Lee, Kick-Ass 2), now entering her junior year. She's smart, great-looking and independent, which might be more of a challenge for Jack than he realizes.

The series works not only because Meloni is such a surprise in the lead, able to be dismissively blunt yet also caring, but also because Halpern and co-writer/co-creator Patrick Schumacker ($#*! My Dad Says) seem to have learned a lot since their last show, which was complete $#*!. Also helpful is that relative newcomer Buckley is charming and talented, not smarmy and off-putting like so many other teens. Halpern and Schumacker are able to make the father-son tough-love connection really work between Meloni and Buckley, while also keeping Harris and Lee relevant.

As an added bonus, Frankie has two friends, George (Kevin Hernandez) and Mikey (Tyler Foden) who get in enough jokes to give hope that Surviving Jack has more story reach than just the father and son relationship.

Halpern has always been funny, and in Surviving Jack he's able to make his jokes about father and son more resonant and hilarious than anything he did on his previous, far too broad CBS series.

Victor Nelli (Scrubs, The Bernie Mac Show) directed the pilot and manages to make the clothes and the music and the internet-free era of the 1990s part of the show without being too arch or indulgent with the easy jokes that might come from the setting. The single-camera comedy doesn't do anything too flashy, but, most importantly, also doesn't pull a muscle trying to stand out. Nelli lets the writing and the actors sell the show.

Now it's up to Fox to see how it treats this latest offering. Will viewers have faith that the network is serious about the long-term possibility of Surviving Jack, or will it get the half-interested Enlisted treatment? When you bring a new show to market this late in the game, viewers need to have a sense of commitment. Only time will tell, of course, but it wouldn't hurt to dive in tonight and see whether you're willing to commit even if Fox's level of interest has yet to reveal itself.

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