CBS still knows how to make comedy that thrives on conflict. Case in point: When The Eye presented its new sitcom The Great Indoors at this summer’s Television Critics Association Press Tour, it managed to stir the type of Gen Xers-versus-milliennials clash that Joel McHale now finds himself in every Thursday night at 8:30 p.m. (7:30 Central). When executive producer Mike Gibbons described the show’s supporting characters as “millennials in an overly PC, coddled work environment,” the TV press’ representatives from multiple demographics responded in kind. Some millennials balked. Some Gen Xers nodded in recognition. And surely someone who’s around the same age as Stephen Fry—who plays Roland, the daffy founder of the adventure magazine at the center of The Great Indoors—wondered if it was too early for a stiff belt of something brown.
His unfortunate choice of words aside, Gibbons has tapped a potentially rich vein. Three extremely different, occasionally strident generations are currently jostling with one another in American workplaces, and an American workplace comedy ought to convert that jostling into studio-audience laughter. As Jack Gordon, outdoor reporter adjusting to a digitized desk job, McHale provides The Great Indoors with its POV, but that doesn’t mean the show is Guy Born In The ’70s Knows Best. The pilot opens itself up to equal-opportunity offense, expressed in a lingo any Joel McHale character can comprehend: sarcasm. “You mean I could forge a lasting, meaningful relationship with a younger generation?” he rhetorically asks his new boss, Brooke (Susannah Fielding). “And who knows, even though I’m the teacher, maybe I could end up blah bleh bleh…” If Jack sounds a lot like Community’s original conception of Jeff Winger, that’s because he is: self-assured, smarmy, sometimes shirtless—notes McHale can hit like Keith Richards rattling off the “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” riff.
The Great Indoors is the type of show that would probably follow that reference up with “Keith who?” but at least it was savvy about picking people to say such words. McHale leads a mix of seasoned veterans (Fry, Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and promising new faces (Fielding, Christine Ko, Shaun Brown) who carry the show across some rough terrain. The characters have their differences, but the cast gels swiftly—especially McHale and Fry, who find an easy mentee-mentor relationship as Jack and Roland. That degree of ensemble connection is enough to place a futures bet on The Great Indoors, and so is the pilot’s way with its setup/punchline jokes. (Roland: “What can I get to restore your aging spirits?” Jack: “Oh, I’ll have what you’re having.” Roland: “Then you’ll be having your third Scotch of the morning.”) There’s the possibility of a good workplace sitcom within The Great Indoors, something akin to a NewsRadio for the age of BuzzFeed. McHale and Fielding have a Dave-and-Lisa thing going on, and Roland is well on his way to being as eccentric as Jimmy James.
If only Brown, Ko, and Mintz-Plasse weren’t all playing slight variations on the naïve, chowderheaded Matthew type. The Great Indoors’ greatest stumbling block is also the reason it got running in the first place: Jack’s crisis of identity in a world of dating apps and gimmicky listicles, perceived sensitivity and ambiguous sexuality, as represented by his new charges. The show makes hay of a true-to-life inability to bridge a generation gap, but does so by aiming at easy (and musty) targets like participation trophies and Pabst Blue Ribbon. The Great Indoors is more than willing to make a joke at Jack’s expense—but never does so with the amount of contempt it reserves for Clark (Mintz-Plasse), Mason (Brown), or Emma (Ko).
Episode two—in which the kids teach Jack the art of crafting an online profile, and he tries to get them to talk to romantic prospects with their faces—doubles down on the “Eek! Millennials!” material, so maybe this is just the show The Great Indoors wants to be. But whenever the show stops speaking in last year’s trending topics and digs around in its quarreling personalities, it shows a better, brighter version of itself. Its premise is a shallow well, but a cast of colorful characters working through their differences toward a common goal is an endlessly renewable resource. When its cast is interacting as characters, and not boogeymen born on the op-ed page, The Great Indoors is worth subscribing to.
One recent precedent for such an evolution—not that it’s an example of quality TV comedy by any means—is ABC’s Last Man Standing, which began from a starting point not unlike The Great Indoors’ own. That Tim Allen vehicle wound up taking “alpha male lost in modern work and home environments” into ill-advised political territory, but judging by CBS’ 2016 comedy slate, the last “mancession” sitcom standing proved to be quietly influential. The Great Indoors got its workplace genes, while the Matt LeBlanc-fronted Man With A Plan inherited the domestic front.
LeBlanc plays Adam Burns, a contractor who takes on increased parental responsibilities when his wife, Andi (Liza Snyder), rejoins the workforce. To his horror, this wrecks his reputation as his kids’ favorite parent and conscripts him into volunteer service in the kindergarten classroom of youngest daughter Emme (Hala Finley). Worse still: While Adam wasn’t paying attention, he and Andi were raising a brood of selfish, irresponsible, snack-demanding little monsters. His strategy for turning things around is the “plan” of the show’s title.
And then, in the second episode, the kids—who are almost always presented as a unit, with only age and/or proclivity to shove their hands down their pants serving as demarcation—basically disappear, so Man With A Plan can introduce a third regular setting: the worksite overseen by Adam and his brother, Don (Kevin Nealon). Adam and Andi are feeling spread thin, and within its first 44 minutes, so does Man With A Plan. It doesn’t help that Don’s introductory episode hinges on a lying game that would’ve been too played out for Lucy and Ethel.
If The Great Indoors is a bet that hopefully pays off down the road, Man With A Plan is a dozen tiny hedged wagers. Its early episodes present Adam with multiple scenarios and relationships that could pay off down the line, but doesn’t commit to any of them. Is this a show about a husband making sacrifices for his wife, for his brother, or for his kids? Is it about a cash-strapped public-education system relying on parents for assistance, and the unlikely friendships that form in those volunteer situations? Is it about a man finally becoming a father 13 years after the fact? It could be all of those things, but it needs a lot more confidence and inventiveness to fulfill such a tall order.
The show places a tremendous amount of faith in LeBlanc, but in spite of the occasional flash of Joey Tribbiani panache, he’s always outshone by Snyder, Nealon, or the analogy-loving dialogue of husband-and-wife creators Jeff and Jackie Filgo. When Adam and Andi get lost in a tortured metaphor about being “behind the wheel” of the Burns family, Man With A Plan demonstrates a complexity it’s yet to grant to Mr. and Mrs. Burns themselves. Lines like these—or a pitch-perfect deadpan delivery from Nealon—are too few and far between, though.
As two leading men in comparable positions, McHale acquits himself better than LeBlanc this fall. The former is smoothly transitioning from the single-camera world into the multi-camera one; the latter appears to be in the show-within-the-show from his previous gig, the meta-sitcom Episodes. In shows driven by friction, theirs are the characters who get to show internal conflict. Jack Gordon and Adam Burns are both men without plans, in worlds that make them feel like men without purpose. But only Man With A Plan lets that identity crisis bleed into the show itself.
The Great Indoors
Created by: Mike Gibbons
Starring: Joel McHale, Stephen Fry, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Susannah Fielding, Christine Ko, Shaun Brown
Debuts: Thursday, October 27 at 8:30 p.m. Eastern on CBS
Format: Multi-camera sitcom
Two episodes watched for review
Man With A Plan
Created by: Jeff and Jackie Filgo
Starring: Matt LeBlanc, Liza Snyder, Kevin Nealon, Diana Maria Riva, Jessica Chaffin, Matt Cook, Grace Kaufman, Matthew McCann, Hala Finley
Debuts: Monday, October 24 at 8:30 p.m. Eastern on CBS
Format: Multi-camera sitcom
Two episodes watched for review