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It would be a fun and nefarious strategy for the broadcast networks to order a couple of intentionally awful pilots to series and then send them to critics in their very worst form just to mess with our careful calibration of good and bad.
See, as I often say, pilots very frequently get tweaked between when they’re announced in May and when they premiere in the fall and spring, and they very rarely diminish in quality. With four months to recast, reconceive and reshoot, networks can usually weed out the bum characters and tweak the dialogue that tested poorly. I watched three different versions of the pilot for Fox’s Terra Nova and each one got worse, but that was the rare exception.
Air date: Oct 24, 2016
Man With a Plan, premiering Monday on CBS, had the worst initial pilot for any show launching this fall. But after recasting its female lead and making several adjustments to the spousal relationship at the center, it’s now just another dated CBS comedy trying to capitalize on the distilled essence of a sitcom star returning to broadcast TV a decade-plus after his heyday. It’s paired on Monday with Kevin Can Wait, and they’re now roughly on the same qualitative level.
Matt LeBlanc plays Adam, a Pittsburgh — by way of a Hollywood multicamera soundstage — contractor who takes on new familial responsibilities when his wife Andi (Liza Snyder) decides to return to work after 13 years raising their three children. Adam thinks he knows what it takes to balance parental duties and work, but it turns out that being a sporadically available “Daddy Fun Times” is very different from doing classroom chores and attempting to enforce discipline.
In Kevin Can Wait, CBS boiled Kevin James’ essence down to “essentially well-meaning man-child,” while Man With a Plan boils LeBlanc’s essence down to “essentially well-meaning dunderhead.” Responsibilities get in the way of James’ character’s inability to be his wife’s fourth kid, at least initially, while responsibilities are simply too complicated for the LeBlanc character to intellectually comprehend, at least initially. In both cases, the characters are capable of in-episode understanding and, because their intentions are fundamentally benign, they can do the right thing, but they’re incapable of long-term growth, because if they turned their focus outward and aspired to permanent improvement, there wouldn’t be a show anymore.
I’ll leave it for Friends fanatics to determine if what they liked about Joey was simply his combination of grounded goodness and grounded stupidity or if there was something more to the appeal of that character. Certainly what was most effective about LeBlanc’s excellent work on Episodes was far more complicated than that, but there’s something about this reduction that plays differently when the LeBlanc persona is put in a supervisory capacity over little humans, which was never the case on Friends or Episodes. Here, he’s entitled to one brainwave per episode as redemption for 20-ish minutes of cluelessness that creators Jackie and Jeff Filgo (That ‘70s Show) find charming, but doesn’t play that way.
“You know what it makes me realize? How little you were doing before,” Andi tells her husband after one of his little parenting victories and he replies with pride, rather than sheepishness, “Yeah, I was getting away with murder.”
The conversation reflects both what’s flawed about the first two Man With a Plan episodes, but also what’s marginally improved. In the original version, Jenna Fischer’s Andi was constantly and obsequiously thankful that her husband allowed her to work at all. The power dynamic was something out of 1952 and you could see in Fischer’s performance the sort of hatred a wife like that might have for her husband. With Snyder’s incarnation, Andi is grateful, but it’s more a sense that Adam gave a blessing, rather than explicit permission. That yields a dynamic that is very conventional by sitcom standards — ABC fathers might aspire to quality parenting, but CBS fathers mostly just want to survive until the end of the day and then regress the next week — but isn’t toxic. As a critic, I got to experience this shift from hideously misconceived to mediocre as improvement. Viewers will just get to see the mediocrity, without the relief.
And even my relief can only go so far. It’s 2016 and I’m not going to get excited about another sitcom in which the bumbling dad does stupid things as the wife stands around exasperated with her arms folded in disapproval and then gets the minor triumph of having always been right in the end, but no meaningful credit for it. Often invigorated by the against-type reinvention on Episodes, LeBlanc is on Joey autopilot here, sometimes landing a punchline with his well-honed comic timing, but more frequently unable to commit to exactly how dumb Adam is supposed to be, an obliviousness that varies by scene. He mostly stands or sits immobile and looks on the vague horizon (or to an audience) for approval. My perception that LeBlanc and Snyder have chemistry is partially defined by how totally LeBlanc and Fischer lacked chemistry in the original pilot, but Snyder definitely has a higher comfort level with a character who hovers in the vicinity of “nagging TV wife,” but at least avoids “wet blanket killjoy.”
There’s no beat between Adam and Andi that you haven’t seen before, but at least they have interactions. The three kids have been cast according to CBS’ “Kids should be dialogue-free props” template, which is very different from ABC’s “If we cast good child actors, we can actually use the kids in plotlines” model, so as with two-third of the kids on Kevin Can Wait, I’ve seen two Man With a Plan episodes and couldn’t say anything positive or negative about the young actors. They’re just there. Other characters include an emasculated fellow kindergarden class parent (Matt Cook’s Lowell), his daughter’s kindergarten teacher (Diana Maria Riva) and, starting in the second episode, Kevin Nealon as Adam’s brother and business partner. Nealon’s a pro and his addition helps, but the world of the show is still mighty thin.
For critics, a slightly improved pilot can offer hope, and hope can lead to irrational optimism of the “Hey, they’re committed to getting this right!” ilk. Last season’s example of this phenomenon was ABC’s Dr. Ken, which never really progressed all the way to even “above average,” but was never again as bad as its original pilot after the writers and Ken Jeong recognized that a show about a lamewad dad might be dated and occasionally regressive, but it was at least better than a show about a lamewad dad who also insulted everybody around him at all times. Baby steps!
With Man With a Plan, the evolution of the first two episodes displays awareness from the Filgos that Andi needed to be more of a partner in this family unit and not just a meek beneficiary of Adam’s ignorant altruism. I think some minor adjustments were also made to make it look like Adam had at least some relationship with his kids, who came across basically as strangers in the first pilot. The first episode contained an OK parenting idea involving Wi-Fi, and the second introduces the phrase “lasagnas of deception,” and these are the things that give me hope that eventually Man With a Plan could be an average, broad sitcom. It isn’t even there yet. Baby steps!
Cast: Matt LeBlanc, Liza Snyder, Kevin Nealon, Diana Maria Riva, Matt Cook, Jessica Chaffin
Creators: Jeff and Jackie Filgo
Premieres: Monday, 8:30 p.m. ET/PT (CBS)
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