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FXX’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia begins its 12th season in January having been nominated for only three Emmys, all for stunt coordination. For a comedy that’s both among TV’s longest running and among its most innovative, that’s a shame.
Air date: Jan 03, 2017
As underappreciated as Sunny has been, Olson is probably its most underappreciated element. Although she’s been there from the beginning, she’s not part of the core creative troika of Rob McElhenney, Glenn Howerton and Charlie Day; therefore, she’s perceived as “less than,” though I’d argue that Sweet Dee is the piece without which there could be no show. Sunny has continually raised the bar on stunts, from musicals to a leading man gaining 50 pounds for one random season, but so many of the non-stunt highlights for me — I always point to the second-season stretch that included “Dennis and Dee Go on Welfare” and “$100 Dollar Baby” as the peak — have been centered around Olson’s loose-limbed physicality and her ability to go ugly and then dig deep to find something uglier and funnier.
Sitcoms, especially male-written sitcoms, have a condescending tendency to give beautiful actresses “good sport” comedic roles, where they’re placed next to a male actor willing to go sloppy, and we’re supposed to smile approvingly because the actress is sloppy-adjacent. Olson has never been satisfied with being merely sloppy-adjacent.
The Mick, premiering on Jan. 1 before moving to its regular Tuesday home on Jan. 3, comes from Sunny veterans Dave Chernin and John Chernin, writers who in theory should understand Olson’s range and skills. For a while, they display that understanding. After four episodes, though, The Mick has already settled into that frustrating spot of being a comedy designed for cable but forced to play by network rules, too soft and squishy and indecisive but nonetheless consistently elevated by Olson.
Olson plays Mackenzie, a slovenly grifter who takes a day trip from her Rhode Island home to visit her sister, who’s married to a wealthy financier in Greenwich, Conn. Mackenzie plans to just ask for money and leave, but when the FBI busts the family BBQ and carts off the sister and brother-in-law for fraud or something, she’s stuck in the uncomfortable position of watching chilly niece Sabrina (Sofia Black D’Elia), elitist nephew Chip (Thomas Barbusca) and out-of-control nephew Ben (Jack Stanton). Mackenzie is ill-prepared to serve as custodian to young relatives she’s barely met, but she’s rather eager to take advantage of the family’s wealth and line of credit, which inexplicably aren’t immediately frozen or seized by the feds.
Mackenzie goes off on a boozing-and-spending bender that rises to exactly the level of debauchery Fox is prepared to tolerate and endangers the children to exactly the level of child endangerment Fox is prepared to tolerate. But if you’ve seen a movie before — Uncle Buck, in particular — you’ll know to anticipate that in very short order, Mackenzie will make the transition from dangerously unsuited to parenting to merely unconventional.
“Dangerously unsuited” is where Olson lives most comfortably, or at least most hilariously. She says inappropriate things with a twinkle and then extinguishes that twinkle for drunkenness that takes stumbling and slurring to an extreme that transcends cliche. The pieces around Olson don’t work particularly well in the pilot. Carla Jimenez’s Alba, the family’s Guatemalan maid, starts off in a stereotypical place, and while Alba becomes a much improved and sometimes interesting part of the ensemble by later episodes, you have to initially take that on faith. But Olson’s crazed energy covers for a lot of the show’s flaws.
The obligatory transition to something more network-friendly happens swiftly, in a second episode that was easily the worst of the four sent to critics. So much time in the second episode is dedicated to answering key ongoing questions — Do these kids not have any relatives more qualified for guardianship? Why is Mackenzie so eager to ditch her own life? — that the tone sours in a really unappealing way. I don’t dispute the need to differentiate between genuine abuse (in the form of Concetta Tomei as the kids’ grandmother) and Mackenzie’s brand of well-meaning mess-ups, but the contrast is made in a way that’s distasteful and unfunny.
Subsequent episodes settle into a rhythm of Mackenzie endangering one or all of the kids in somewhat perfunctory ways through her unconventional but probably honorable intentions. It’s to the show’s credit that it resists ending every episode with a reassuring family hug, but its fangs have nonetheless been filed down in a hurry.
The version of The Mick in which Mackenzie is Mary Poppins with an attitude — I’d have gone with “Amelia Bad-elia” except that nobody would get the reference — makes it easier for the child endangerment misadventures to progress, because we know she always means well and that nothing that happens to the kids in one episode will leave scars in the next. Little Ben proves a particularly resilient target for things that would be a real parent’s nightmare — licking a hibachi, taking Mackenzie’s birth control pills, etc. — and the show’s biggest non-Olson laughs come from Stanton, giving one of those fully committed child performances designed to make you think, “I wonder if the kid understands what he’s doing.” Only time will tell if he’s funny as an actor or just as a prop, but he’s definitely funny, and his oversize reactions line up well with the broader, more physical side of Olson’s comedy. D’Elia, solid with withering one-liners, also gives Olson a good verbal sparring partner. The writers have yet to figure out how to pair Olson and Barbusca’s Chip, so she’s mostly offering him questionable pearls of wisdom and leaving him to get his comeuppance elsewhere.
Finding a way to tie the third child into Olson’s strengths is important because that’s basically what The Mick has going for it. It doesn’t offer an especially fresh family dynamic or an especially fresh set of characters, but it’s an opportunity to put Olson and the things she does best front and center for a wider audience than Sunny probably gets. Fox has made the questionable choice to air The Mick at midseason just as new Sunny episodes are premiering, but there are worse things than a weekly double dose of one of TV’s funniest actresses.
Cast: Kaitlin Olson, Sofia Black D’Elia, Thomas Barbusca, Jack Stanton, Carla Jimenez
Creators: Dave Chernin and John Chernin
Premieres Sunday, Jan. 1 at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT. Airs Tuesdays at 8:30 p.m. ET/PT on Fox.
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