'United We Fall': TV Review

ABC
The pilot's standout moment features a child with a prolapsed rectum. (How that's for a "bottom" line?)
7/15/2020

Will Sasso and Christina Vidal Mitchell star in ABC's new family sitcom, which also features Jane Curtin and Guillermo Díaz.

Partway through the pilot for ABC's sitcom United We Fall, the show's central family has to rush to the emergency room.

Why? Because daughter Emily (Ella Grace Helton) has … a prolapsed rectum.

"Ew!" you might well say.

You'd be correct. It's discussed in some detail, probably more than most casual viewers will require.

"That's not funny!" you might well say.

You wouldn't necessarily be wrong there either.

But here's what I'd counter with: It's easy to think of the lamest of reasons a broadcast TV family would have to make an ER visit. Baby has a fever! Toddler swallowed something valuable that will eventually have to be pooped out! Etc.!

Leaving your wincing and distaste aside, the prolapsed rectum thing feels like something the writers of United We Fall might have actually experienced, rather than something they saw on TV or thought a TV audience might be amused by. United We Fall isn't very good overall — at least not in the two episodes sent to critics (only two episodes, despite having completed production months ago) — but both episodes feature at least a couple of those moments that seem specific and authentic.

That juvenile prolapsed rectum is both the worst and best thing about United We Fall. (And yes, ABC, you can use that blurb.)

Created by Julius Sharpe, United We Fall could easily be lumped in with a string of quickly canceled comedies that premiered this spring — shows including Outmatched, Indebted and Broke, about in-over-their-head parents, wacky TV kids and relatives forced by economic circumstances to expand that nuclear family.

In this case, our parental heroes are Bill (Will Sasso) and Jo (Christina Vidal Mitchell), who struggle to feel like they're prepared to raise Emily and little Lulu (Ireland and Sedona Carvajal), but come to realize in every episode that despite their bumbling efforts, they're actually pretty good parents. The secret, they discover, is presenting a united front, something they have to do against Will's ubiquitous mother Sandy (Jane Curtin) and Jo's persistently present brother Chuy (Guillermo Díaz), whose own invariably stern or obsessive ideas about parenting rarely align with whatever Jo and Bill are doing.

Both Chuy and Sandy are genuinely badly conceived figures, devised as annoying interlopers without any hint of affection or external awareness so that no viewer will be able to understand why either character is present as much as they are. I felt both sad and angry watching Curtin, a comic legend with a near-impeccable capacity for turning lumps of coal into diamonds, struggle to find anything funny or purposeful in her character. With Díaz, you can at least understand why, after all of the misery that Scandal put him through, there would be some relief in just playing an annoying busy-body mugging for laughs. But the Weeds veteran should warrant better material than this. I think I understand the adversarial function both characters serve in the structure of United They Fall, but I can't understand the comic function either serves in either episode I've seen.

The annoying mother and annoying brother basically make it easy to empathize with Jo and Bill, which I guess might be a difficult process otherwise, what with the willy-nilly prolapsed rectums and whatnot. Jo and Bill are also characters built too heavily on cliches, especially when it comes to Jo's tossed-off references to her massive family and her reliance on "fiery Latina" tropes. But Sasso and Vidal are very good together, fulfilling that difficult sitcom-couple challenge of actually making some sense as a compatible pairing even when they're engaging in obligatory competitive parenting. Throw in Helton's well-utilized comic timing and there's something to this clan that feels right and even nurturing.

If you took Sandy and Chuy away, leaving Jo, Bill, Emily and Lulu, there probably wouldn't be enough for a show here — but at least you might have a better starting point. The pilot, again with the prolapsed rectum, has a funny guest turn by Marc Evan Jackson (The Good Place), who I always think should be too big a star for cameos in which he may not even get a name, yet I always appreciate him in those turns. Maybe the better show here is about this family and the concerned doctor who has to deal with the kids' frequent maladies? The second episode includes Gloria Calderón Kellett — co-writer of the episode with One Day at a Time partner Mike Royce — in an amusing role as a preschool teacher who loves kids, but hates parents. Maybe the other better show here is about the family making friends with this stern teacher? It definitely isn't about the stay-at-home grandmother spitting into a genealogy test tube and hoping to find out that she's Italian.

How long does it take for absence to make the heart grow fonder when it comes to mediocre broadcast sitcoms? Well, I just called United We Fall "mediocre" and I doubt I'd have been as generous reviewing it alongside its fellow midseason duds. I've become starved enough for comfort broadcast programming to latch onto the couple beats that play as likeable or vaguely realistic. I probably don't expect or necessarily recommend the same leeway from viewers.

Cast: Will Sasso, Christina Vidal Mitchell, Jane Curtain, Ella Grace Helton, Guillermo Díaz

Creator: Julius Sharpe

Episodes air Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on ABC, premiering July 15.