I’m afraid “average” just doesn’t cut it anymore. The animated sitcom Duncanville, from creators Amy Poehler and Mike and Julie Scully, centers on the ho-hum travails of a gangly redheaded teen with no discernible personality traits other than “confused.” Duncanville is proud of this, purposefully billing itself as a comedy about “a spectacularly average 15-year-old boy,” according to the Fox press release. In 2019, 532 original scripted television series aired across network, cable and streaming platforms. With this much content zooming at our faces, I’m surprised to see Fox get excited about a show that’s boastfully ordinary. Duncan Harris is not just average. He’s non-descript. Dull. I’m not quite sure if there is room for Duncans on television anymore when anyone could choose from hundreds of other more compelling protagonists.
Duncanville contains some smart joke-telling, some of-the-moment references. (The latter of which will, of course, spoil rapidly in years to come.) The show is pleasant, manic and stale all at once, yet neither sophisticated nor weird enough to engender immediate viewer loyalty. Judging from the two episodes available to critics, I see potential for it to grow and eventually find its voice. But it also appears to be stuck on the wrong premise.
Why should we care about Duncan, a kid so intent on floating through life that his father has to beg to teach him to drive, when we could instead follow his ferocious, purple-hair tween sister? While Duncan whines about how Kimberly bested him at his own MMORPG because she decided to slaughter a peaceful race of elves instead of befriending them, the girl heaves with righteous anger: “You stay out of my [online] bullying or I swear I will doxx you, swat you, and catfish you so hard you’ll believe you’re in love.” As she reminds him earlier in the episode, “I’m something you’ll never be. A middle-school girl. There’s no name I haven’t been called, no taunt I haven’t endured, no body part that hasn’t been shamed. I show no mercy and must kill to survive.” This girl shouldn’t be a side dish, but the whole damn meal.
Duncanville, like a glut of other Fox animated comedies, zeroes in on a stereotypical white nuclear TV family that includes a bumbling patriarch, a harridan matriarch, two warring kids and an adorable baby. (Simpsons legend Mike Scully later left his legacy on Parks and Recreation, where he helped give Pawnee its deranged, Springfield-esque cultural life.) Gulf War veteran and plumber Jack (Ty Burrell, playing another desperate-to-be-liked dad) sees himself as the “fun” parent compared to anxiety-prone squawker Annie (Amy Poehler). Annie, unfortunately, is a flawless nagwife, constantly haranguing her husband and children to get in line.
Duncan (also voiced by Poehler) is their gawkward carrot-top son, another adolescent slacker protagonist who’s the least interesting thing onscreen. The show supposes his “vast imagination” is his selling point, but it’s merely the show’s opportunity to mimic the choppy cutaway style of Family Guy. (Complete with swiftly-expiring pop culture references, like a fantasy sequence featuring Alex Honnold of Free Solo or a wink-wink joke about character actor Kyle Bornheimer. Who’s the audience for this show, exactly?) His little sisters are far more engrossing: Brutal middle schooler Kimberly (Riki Lindhome) challenges him and doofy-cute 6-year-old Jing (Joy Osmanski) wants to marry him. I once saw Mike Scully confess on a panel that Simpsons writers have jokingly proposed storylines in which Bart and Lisa fall in love with each other, so I’m not at all surprised to see a couple of weirdo incest jokes in these two episodes.
Duncan’s flanked by his fellow outsider buddies Bex (Betsy Sodaro), Yangzi (Yassir Lester) and Wolf (Zach Cherry). Bex, who’s drawn to look just like Sodaro, including the comedienne’s signature wild ponytail, is a delightful chaos agent who’s out-and-proud about her love of nakedness. (Not shown onscreen, however.) Yangzi is a future tech bro, and Wolf is a classic monotone dirtbag. Duncan also has a sometimes-crush on Manic Pixie Dream Activist Mia, voiced by Rashida Jones. (She’s cute AND she cares!) The kids crash cars, feud with stay-at-home dads and generally scheme for attention.
The show’s aesthetics don’t naturally invite your attention. Each episode feels like a jumbled attic full of too many plots and ideas and settings and hyper-specific pop culture references — you can barely keep up with the emotional arcs when you’re constantly jumping from scene to scene. The design is fairly pedestrian, looking like a cousin of Family Guy, and the talents of the voice actors vary. (I’d also like to know why its Asian-heritage characters are literally yellow? Yikes.)
Cast standouts include Poehler in dual and dichotomous roles, Sodaro as buoyant Bex and Cherry, who plays Wolf with desert-dry wit. Lindhome’s performance, on the other hand, seems forced, as Kimberly’s exasperated intonations sound too modern-day Valley Girl. I can’t help but imagine how my ambivalence about this show would shift if, for once, a cartoon about kids actually included kids’ voices.
Duncanville is another family-friendly comedy that seems about as connected to today’s youth as its Groupon jokes seem relevant to 2020. There’s something particularly ’90s about this sitcom that might be intended to feel nostalgic, but really comes off as retrograde. (Do cafeterias even serve salisbury steak anymore or is that just a long-ago memory of a middle-aged writing staff?)
I get that kids do bad things. If that’s the gist, though, I’d at least like to be led by an actual bully.
Cast: Amy Poehler, Ty Burrell, Riki Lindhome, Joy Osmanski, Betsy Sodaro, Yassir Lester, Zach Cherry, Rashida Jones
Creators: Mike Scully, Julie Thacker Scully, Amy Poehler
Premieres: Sunday, 8:30 p.m. ET/PT (Fox)