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In real estate terms, ABC’s Bless This Mess, the story of a New York hipster couple who inherit a Nebraska farmhouse, is far from new construction. Based only on the cliche-heavy pilot, it’s also far from move-in ready.
What Bless This Mess has going for it is a likable central couple, played by co-creator Lake Bell and Dax Shepard, an impressive supporting ensemble and just enough hints at a distinctive voice trying to be heard through the cacophony of familiarity. Whether the post-pilot renovations concentrate on what is distinctive here or just rely on the flimsy foundation will be a question for future episodes unavailable to critics.
Air date: Apr 16, 2019
Bell, who co-wrote the pilot with Liz Meriwether and also directed, plays Rio, a psychiatrist preparing to leave her practice behind to follow husband Mike (Shepard), a music journalist, to the farm left to him by his great aunt. Mike and Rio have been married for only a year, and although the marriage seems to be an acrimony-free success, they worry that they aren’t living their best life. Rio is tired of crazy New Yorkers; Mike is tired of not living up to the masculine ideal he believes to be in his reach. So they pack up and drive to Nebraska, even though Mike can’t even hold a hammer, Rio is afraid of cows and neither knows more about farming that what one might glean from a YouTube tutorial.
As a side note, I’m somewhat perplexed by the fact that Rio and Bell are a childless couple here, not because this scenario demanded adorable moppets quipping about bucolic inconveniences, but because ABC’s comedy brand is so conspicuously family-driven and Bless This Mess is conspicuously not on that particular brand. Anyway…
Before you can say “Green Acres!” or “We Bought a Zoo… Err… a Farm!” or “Schitt’s Creek!” or “The Money Pit!,” Mike and Rio discover that their dream house is a wreck, Nebraska doesn’t offer access to all of their favorite creature comforts and their neighbors are both salt-of-the-earth and don’t always cotton to the presence of city slickers. In short, just because it’s Middle America doesn’t mean the simple life is actually simple.
You’ll have to let me know if any part of that scenario sounds fresh or revelatory to you, because the first 22 minutes of Bless This Mess rely too heavily on, “Man, I can’t believe we’re still doing that joke in 2019” tropes and hackneyed beats. Guess what? It turns out that the yuppies have every bit as much to learn from the bumpkins as vice versa, which would seem like it was subverting the genre, except that that’s exactly what the conventions of the genre have always been. Nothing in how Bless This Mess initially approaches Nebraska suggests any regionally specific or time-period-specific authenticity. In lieu of actually shooting in Nebraska, Bell goes for whimsical rural tableaus and the closest the show comes to grounding is the above-average production design on the ramshackle farmhouse. That’s still superficial, and that’s probably the same superficial level on which the yokels, with their homespun wisdom and innocuous anti-Semitism, and the urban couple, with their functional uselessness and neurotic insecurities, verge on offensively hoary.
If they don’t quite get that bad — and I don’t think they do — it’s because Bell and Meriwether have assembled the sort of cast that can sell almost anything and Bell, whose confidence as a director won’t surprise anybody who has seen In a World… or her frequent Childrens Hospital work, has kept them from making exclusively predictable choices. I liked Ed Begley Jr. as the quirky freeloader living in their barn and Pam Grier as a local merchant/sheriff, and I especially enjoyed the two characters and their strange flirtation. I’m not sure if Lennon Parham and David Koechner are going to be regulars as neighbors who want to buy Rio and Mike’s house for their expanding slaughterhouse business, but the show would benefit from as much of their presence as possible.
Bell and Shepard make for a likable pair, tossing around the script’s decent repartee with believable energy and making you kinda root for these two as a couple, which goes a long way. Bell’s character has a little more initial nuance and I think she’s given herself more funny lines, but she’s also paired herself less successfully with the normally exceptional Susie Essman in a grating and misjudged performance as Rio’s therapist mother. I preferred the way Shepard, always equipped with a low-effort charm, gets to play opposite Grier.
From the stars to the ensemble to the assembled creative talent, Bless This Mess has the elements to become a pleasant comedy success, but with only the pilot, very hung up on establishing its premise, to go by here, it would require me to project. I don’t know what the actual week-to-week series is even going to be. I hope it accentuates the pilot’s strengths and is able to find its own worldview quickly.
Cast: Lake Bell, Dax Shepard, Pam Grier, Ed Begley Jr.
Creator: Lake Bell and Elizabeth Meriwether
Premieres: Tuesday, 9:30 p.m. ET/PT (ABC)
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