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Normally, going through the pile of new fall shows reveals a pretty clear separation of the good and the bad or, perhaps as fatal as the latter, the very mediocre.
Yet there’s a small sample of freshman series that have loads of potential but for varying reasons don’t particularly stand out — at least not yet. ABC has two such comedies: Trophy Wife and Back in the Game. This isn’t exactly a good thing — but the shows should at least serves as a measure of how patient the modern audience will be.
With viewers getting deluged with new fall series and scrambling to reacquaint themselves with returning shows, the problem arises of what to add and what to subtract. One person (or family) can only watch so many shows. Like incoming freshman to a new high school, it’s very difficult to break into the cliques. And television hasn’t been this competitive ever. On top of an increase in quality scripted fare across the cable spectrum, viewers are also being given options on Netflix, Hulu and Amazon.
And so you have to wonder how a series with potential but perhaps not an easy-to-categorize premise will fare. Patience isn’t exactly abounding among viewers.
In that sense, tonight’s offering, Trophy Wife, might stand the better chance (even though Back in the Game has the cushier time slot on a popular night for ABC). That’s because there’s some familiarity to the premise of Trophy Wife. Kate (Malin Akerman) is done with the party girl scene and ends up — by accident or fate — settling down with Pete (Bradley Whitford), who’s not only many years her senior but comes with two wildly different ex-wives and three children. Which means that Kate, still adjusting to even being married, instantly has a family that is — youngest to oldest and wives included — dubious of her.
In Pete’s past, there’s Diane (Marcia Gay Harden), a strict, controlling doctor and mother to two young teens, and Jackie (Michaela Watkins), the new-age oddity who is the mother to an adopted Asian son. Who does Kate have for support? Best friend Meg (Natalie Morales), who is in no way equipped to offer advice on Kate’s new life.
Whitford shines with his surprisingly Zen-like approach to having three women he’s been married to weave in and out of his life with varying results. It’s a storm his character weathers much better than Kate, who loves him but can’t quite fit into the club. Now, there’s comic material here — Watkins’ character is ripe for humor — but despite Whitford’s appeal, Trophy Wife isn’t exactly tidy. For starters, it’s hard to imagine that he flipped from one extreme to the other when he went from wife No. 1 to wife No. 2, and he seems extremely lucky to get the leggy young Akerman as his newly devoted third.
The pilot is solid, but 22 minutes with this kind of cast and concept barely leaves any room to decipher whether or not you want to spend one night a week with these people. And that’s the thing: Trophy Wife is funny (and series creator Sarah Haskins was hilarious and charming when she met critics in July), but what’s the barometer of an overwhelmed audience? Will they see enough in these people to give them the necessary time to shine through in their roles? Or will they be attracted to something (like ABC’s other, funnier and more immediately likable sitcom, The Goldbergs), that just “pops” more definitively in 22 minutes? In many ways it’s not fair — a few weeks with this cast could produce some intriguing results — but it’s hard to imagine the audience waiting around to see what jells.
This is the same issue facing Back in the Game. And in some ways, this is the litmus test I’m most interested in monitoring. Way back when, Mark and Robb Cullen created Lucky for FX, which might still be going strong if FX had any other comedies back in the early days. But the duo has vision and Back in the Game certainly won’t qualify as one of those shows so simple you can sell it in the elevator on the way to the pitch meeting. Oh, sure, you can say it’s a modern, more female-centric Bad New Bears, but that’s not really close. The conceit is that Terry “The Cannon” Gannon Sr. (James Caan), was a pitcher with a great arm but not much luck or the right temperament, who washed around professional baseball and became the single father to Terry Gannon Jr., who just happens to be a girl (Maggie Lawson).
“The Cannon” wasn’t very good at being a coach or a dad but pushed Terry to have a strong arm, a love for softball and an all-or-nothing attitude. But as she got older and unexpectedly derailed from her dreams and ended up with a son, Terry decided she wanted nothing to do with her father. But times are tough and the three of them are living together when Danny (Griffin Gluck), the completely uncoordinated, not-interested-in-sports son decides to try out for the baseball team to impress a girl. Ever gruff, “The Cannon” tells her the kid’s got no talent. And a super-aggressive coach makes that clear by cutting Danny and all the other not very athletic kids.
Annoyed, Terry decides to coach the unwanted kids — and they are really, really bad — while reluctantly allowing “The Cannon” to help out. It’s generational bonding meets baseball, but that’s not something that sells in a promo ad. And the producers have said that the actual playing of the games won’t be a weekly thing — we are just to assume the kids are bad and stay bad, despite the two Terrys trying to make them winners.
Well, as you can tell, Back In the Game doesn’t really scream long-term storytelling beyond the family dynamic, which is precisely why it’s wedged between The Middle and Modern Family on ABC. It fits there, definitely, because the strands of parenting and quirk intertwine. And I could watch Lawson do just about anything for a half-hour each week. Plus Caan as a beer-drinking, cantankerous coach and grandfather has a lot of appeal. But this is a series that would seem to need, at minimum, four episodes before the audience can begin to get a real feel for it. Even smushed between two high-caliber comedies, there might not be enough lift to let all the charms of Back in the Game play out. We shall see.
But if the audience is in a picky mood, what you’ll see immediately is a drop-off out of The Middle and a mass return for Modern Family. If that pattern emerges, forget it.
Fair? Of course not. Both Trophy Wife and Back in the Game have something about them that, in a perfect world, should be discovered. Between Akerman and Lawson, plus Harden, Whitford and Caan, there’s entertainment value to be had. It’s now just a matter of whether the audience can afford the time to have it more than once.
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