When it comes to the ensemble family comedy, casting will take you a long way. One implausible sibling or grating spouse, and the entire series can topple, even if the writing and directing are sturdy. CBS’ new comedy Life in Pieces, premiering on Monday, Sept. 21, and eventually moving to Thursday after football ends, has that solid foundation in place, with a superior cast that carries from the established veterans who make up its older generation right down to the newcomers representing the youth.
Now Life in Pieces just needs to hone the show around its ensemble until it becomes worthy of its stars.
It isn’t that Life in Pieces will need to be a teardown, but the Justin Adler-created single-cam needs to either live up to the aspirations of its structure or stop being so proud of doing something that isn’t actually all that fresh or effective.
The opening tag for Life in Pieces goes: “One big family. Four short stories. Every week.” And if that sounds like pretty much every family sitcom ever to air, you have a sense of the announced potential that isn’t fulfilled here. The gimmick is in the second sentence: the four short stories. Rather than having A, B, C and D stories that interact throughout the episode, Life in Pieces presumably will have those stories as their own separate segments, with the concluding segment perhaps tying everything together — or perhaps not. So it’s every sitcom ever, but edited in a way which, for the purposes of the pilot, doesn’t add up to much.
Our stories/characters conveniently all find themselves at different points in their lives and relationships: Matt (Thomas Sadoski) and Colleen (Angelique Cabral) are newly dating, but their domestic circumstances make intimacy awkward. Heather (Betsy Brandt) and Tim (Dan Bakkedahl) are taking their eldest son to visit colleges as their two daughters also have important milestones, causing the parents to feel their age. Greg (Colin Hanks) and Jen (Zoe Lister-Jones) have a newborn, and they’re shocked to discover that having a baby does a number on a woman’s body. And then, in the last segment, Joan (Dianne Wiest) and John (James Brolin) bring their whole family (everybody we’ve met previously) together for purposes of thematic exposition and little else.
The early chapters in this short-story collection are tied together by superficial oddities — ice, public sex — and general relationship tropes that in almost every case, you’ve seen before in a dozen films and TV shows. Maybe you haven’t seen them explored on CBS, but that’s all the more reason to wonder if this family is actually worth investing in here. The Jen-Greg story, in particular, has a blunt coarseness that feels entirely out of place on a network held aloft by more gently dirty Chuck Lorre-style double entendres. The college-trip storyline has some of that as well, with a father-son sex talk that may make audience members more uncomfortable than the characters. Those are the middle chapters, sandwiched between the Matt-Colleen story, which plays as thin farce that barely leaves room for character work, and a closing installment in which Brolin’s character stands at a podium and lectures the family members on the point of the series.
Short-story conceit aside, Life in Pieces is being executed as CBS’ three-years-too-late attempt to channel Modern Family, complete with Jason Winer as pilot director, but it may be better off aspiring to something like a half-hour incarnation of Parenthood, since the subtle comedic interplay and occasional sentimental beats play much better than the shrieking about childbirth-damaged genitals and humiliating anecdotes about sofa sex.
“What you kids don’t get is that life is about these moments, these pieces of time, these slices of life that flash by,” Brolin’s patriarch actually pronounces, and if that’s not the sort of on-the-nose writing that makes you cringe, Life in Pieces may not need any improvements for you. If you’re like me, though, the excruciating underlining of the last story will remind you how entirely the cast is carrying the emotional and character weight of the story.
Brolin and Wiest convey the comfort of a decadeslong relationship, when all I know about them is that they watch Steven Seagal movies and attend bar mitzvahs. Bakkedahl and Brandt have a mixture of warmth and tentativeness that sells the idea that their characters might be prematurely concerned about what will be left for them in a decade as empty-nesters. Lister-Jones and Hanks instantly lay down the power dynamic between the more assertive Jen and eager puppy Greg, a dynamic that then inverts when they’re with his large family. And whatever sparks I felt between Colleen and Matt came from having appreciated Cabral’s work on Fox’s short-lived Enlisted.
Bonus casting points to the production for finding the less established Holly J. Barrett and Giselle Eisenberg, who get unforced laughs in one good scene with Bakkedahl and Brandt, and also the relaxed Niall Cunningham. From Trophy Wife to Fresh Off the Boat to Black-ish to Modern Family, ABC has set an extremely high bar when it comes to casting the least obnoxiously precocious child actors in the business, and Life in Pieces casting director Juel Bestrop appears to have gotten that part right.
Part of why most half-hour shows mix up their A, B, C and D stories is because 21 minutes isn’t a long time, and sometimes you don’t want to have to give supporting characters more than a line or two. The ostensible ambition of Life in Pieces is to tell full stories with every segment of this family in every episode — which you know won’t be easy because even the pilot, usually the best opportunity to showcase the potential of a device like this, gets no rewards from it.
Will Life in Pieces find a way to pay off its short-story-based framework, or will it abandon it and just become conventional single-cam on a network that hasn’t had much success with conventional single-cams? Thanks to Wiest, Brolin, Brandt, Bakkedahl, Lister-Jones, Hanks, Sadoski, Cabral and the kids, I’ll give it a few episodes to answer that fairly important question.