Welcome to the Family: TV Review

One family is ecstatic that their son has been accepted to Stanford, achieving his (and their) dreams. Another family is ecstatic that their dimmer-bulb daughter got into Arizona State, exceeding their dreams. But then everyone finds out she's pregnant with his kid -- and they both want to skip college.

NBC's latest sitcom has some fine work by the main leads -- Mike O'Malley and Ricardo Chavira in particular -- but that's not enough to make it pop in a crowded field.

Where is the place for shows that are good but not great, likable but not compelling, worth some time but existing in a world where time is the most precious commodity?

I ask that because NBC’s newest sitcom, Welcome to the Family, has tons of potential. Well, in fairness, it has a lot of potential that could, in season three, stop up the sink a little bit. But isn’t that getting way ahead of ourselves?

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We exist in a world of too many choices -- this is a truism I will repeat endlessly as the fall television season rolls out -- and the likelihood that people will come back and watch a show that gets a “meh” on their response meter after the pilot is low.

Very, very low.

That said, a lot of really bad comedies -- hello, Dads on Fox! -- make an enormous, negative splash and steal a bunch of headlines and people watch to see how awful it can really be (listen when I tell you that it’s awful, not-watch-it-twice awful), leaving shows that need a little breathing room with not enough air to survive.

Hence, Welcome to the Family.

In the pilot, Mike O’Malley (Glee, My Name Is Earl, Justified) is tremendous. So is Ricardo Chavira (Desperate Housewives). There hasn’t been a pilot this fall where two actors overcome the material they are given to almost miraculously save a show and make you think, “Hmmm, maybe I’ll DVR that thing.” No, seriously, you have no idea how impressive that is. I’ll watch O’Malley in just about anything. Chavira is the surprise here, rising to O’Malley’s challenge and exerting the kind of “I’d like to see what this guy does next week” unpredictability that wasn’t evident in Desperate Housewives.

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The series is pretty simple. It revolves around two families. There’s Miguel (Chavira) and Lisette Hernandez (Justina Machado), who have struggled and raised their son, Junior (Joseph Haro), so well that he’s been accepted to Stanford. And then there’s Dan (O’Malley) and Caroline Yoder (Mary McCormack), who have barely survived raising their daughter, Molly (Ella Rae Peck), and come home from her high school graduation completely ecstatic. “Suck it, doubters!” Dan yells. “She’s Arizona State’s problem now!” says Caroline. (By the way, that was one of the best jokes of the fall season.)

Dan and Caroline are happy to be free of Molly. Oh, they love her. She’s very nice. But she’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer, and they had a lot of doubts that she’d ever graduate and get into college.

Added into this scenario we need a twist, yes? Well, it turns out that Junior and Molly have been dating (secretly) and now Molly is pregnant. Junior, because he was raised right, wants to be there for Molly and help raise the baby, deferring his entrance into Stanford.

Does the Hernandez family believe that the Yoder family is a pack of losers? Yes, they do. Does the Yoder family understand that Molly’s pregnancy is yet another screwup? Yes, they do. But mostly they’re annoyed that the empty-nest thing -- where a couple could, say, get in better shape or have more sex or just have more free time without putting out fires started by the kids – is now on hold.

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So you’ve got the classic merged-family scenario with a more modern twist (not so long ago in television it would have been the white family annoyed that their precious daughter got knocked up by the minority kid). In any case, not exactly new ground. And the merging of families likely implies a lot of scenarios we’ve come to expect. I have no idea how Welcome to the Family will pan out, but I do know that O’Malley and Chavira and McCormack elevated the material they were given. And they were good.

At the same time, there wasn’t enough else in Welcome to the Family to make me want to watch any more of it. That’s an issue with the pilot, mostly. But in our current TV world, you get one chance at a first impression. I’ll be interested to see if viewers come back for the potential that the actors – not the premise – promise.

E-mail: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine