Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Amy Poehler's charms make Duncanville a welcome addition to Fox's animation block

Duncanville
Duncanville
Image: Fox
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Watching the premiere of Fox’s Duncanville, it can be easy to forget that series co-creator Amy Poehler voices both both Duncan and his mother. It’s a testament to Poehler’s abilities to play children, clearly honed when she was playing the hyperactive Kaitlyn on Saturday Night Live. Now Poehler’s joined creative forces with The Simpsons alums Julie Thacker Scully and Mike Scully for the newest neighbor to show up on Fox’s animation block.

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In the pilot, titled “Pilot,” however, Duncan is a lot less fun compared to Kaitlyn. That isn’t a mark against the show, which has a slightly Boy Meets World vibe in its early goings, though Duncanville has more references to technology, The Simpsons surrealism, but fewer After School Special type heart-to-heart talks. But like Boy Meets World’s protagonist Cory Matthews, Duncan is already the least interesting character on the show.

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In fact, the show starts out emphasizing how average Duncan is, with a C+ report framed in his bedroom right by a disqualified medal and a participation trophy (a musty old joke about millennials that seems out of place for a show about a Gen Z teen). Duncan’s even having a dream about climbing a mountain called the Devil’s Anus. Apparently, all others have failed because they knew too much; Duncan believes his strength is that he’s a total amateur. He even meets Free Solo’s subject Alexandar Honnald, who gamely gives Duncan his Oscar, so in awe he is of Duncan’s abilities.

Duncan wakes up from his dream, just as Wonder Woman’s about to kiss him, to his parents excitedly rousing him from bed so his dad can teach him to drive. His dad, Jack, is voiced by Ty Burrell, who’s playing a much more interesting father than his Modern Family counterpart. He’s obsessed with bonding with his children to the point that every rejection of his love puts him in a deep depression. His references to his own abusive father makes his need for his children’s love and approval a lot sweeter than it has any right to be.

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Duncan is terrible at driving, and totally unmotivated to change—until he’s hanging out with his friends and his crush Mia (perfect sunflower Rashida Jones) mentions seeing him driving. He gets a boner while talking to her, which is played for a laugh, obviously, but it’s not as funny as The Inbetweeners nor does it have as much pathos as Big Mouth. There’s always room to grow, though.

This crush motivates Duncan to ask his mother to teach him how to drive. She is happy to do so after he says he’ll help her with her errands, including being designated driver for her book club. Duncan’s friends (Betsy Sodoro, Yassir Lester, Zach Cherry) come with a few ready-made gags that’ll be fun to watch grow throughout the series. I think it’ll be interesting to see how these comedy veterans write about teens these days. It’s funny that one of the kids has a big enough Twitter presence to get free stuff, but whither Instagram? TikTok? DePop? Mia does sound a lot like Kaitlyn Dever’s character in Booksmart, at least.

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Duncan’s friends end up getting tickets to an EDM concert and, with Mia’s help, pressure Duncan into saying he’ll take them. His mom refuses to be his designated adult, as he still just has a learner’s permit, so he sneaks out and they drag along Bex’s (Betsy Sodaro) grandmother. They all dress up and have a great time, even if their time includes setting off all the festival’s fireworks at once. It’s pretty cute. The only problem is when they hit Oakie, the town’s ancient witch lynching (!!) tree.

At breakfast Duncan can’t help but show his guilt, which is met by his parents’ disappointment. After they talk about how much the tree meant to them personally—they carved their initials into it in high school—Duncan goes out and with his friends drags the trunk of the tree home. He makes a huge freaking mess, but his parents forgive him for that too because he’s being so sweet; this, even after realizing the trunk is full of cicadas.

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Though Duncanville is missing a compelling central character, it does have a lot of heart. The new kid on Fox’s animation block can actually be very fun and funny. Despite its very familiar flavor of network comedy, Duncanville is genuinely surprising in some parts, and sweet in others. The tag at the end of the family happily eating out of their car, with Jack sacrificing himself to the cicadas for some eggs, establishes just how tight-knit the family is, even if the show is very much still coming together.

Stray observations

  • Wiz Khalifa (!) plays the Mr. Turner-esque (or maybe more Mr. Kraz-esque?) Mr. Mitch, who seems extremely cool to the kids at the school and extremely uncool in every other context. So maybe he’s more on the Mr. Kraz end of the spectrum.
  • Duncan has two sisters, Kimberly (Riki Lindhome) and Jing (Joy Osmanski). They don’t have much to do with the plot of this episode, but the gag that Jing keeps insisting she’s going to marry Duncan is just the right amount of weird and pretty accurate as far as how little kids talk about marriage.
  • Duncan swerves to avoid the popemobile when he’s learning how to drive.
  • When Duncan takes too long to return to his dream, Wonder Woman ends up making out with Batman instead.
  • Duncan asks why his dad can’t be cool like Captain “Sully” Sullenberger (voiced by Bill Hader), who appears at the end of the episode to fly him on his back when Duncan’s still high from the drugs from the EDM concert.
  • Thanks for reading! We’ll return to Duncanville at the midseason and finale points.
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Sulagna Misra has written for The Cut, The Hairpin, and The Toast, as well as other publications that don't start with "the." She writes about what she thinks about when she’s not paying attention. She’s on Twitter so she can not pay attention more effectively.

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