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

Chad gradually rises above its cringe comedy with surprising earnestness

Alexa Loo, Nasim Pedrad, Jake Ryan in TBS’ Chad
Alexa Loo, Nasim Pedrad, Jake Ryan in TBS’ Chad
Photo: Liane Hentscher/TBS
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The new comedy Chad has been a long time coming. Created by and starring Nasim Pedrad, the show has been in development since 2016, and has moved networks from Fox to TBS. Pedrad has not only written and directed the show; she also takes on the challenge of playing the eponymous 14-year-old boy who legally changed his name from Ferydoon to Chad Amani to sound more American. He only has one goal as high school starts: to befriend the crowd he perceives as “cool.” It’s a familiar narrative, but Chad, who is Iranian American, has to additionally navigate his cultural identity along with his teenage experiences, although he often chooses not to do so. Chad puts his Iranian heritage on the back burner as a way to fit in, even though he’s the only one who views it as a hindrance. After some unsteady initial episodes, the series manages to explore some heartfelt narratives through its extremely uncomfortable humor.

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Chad recalls Hulu’s Pen15—which sees series creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle play teens as well—in the way it induces full-body shudders with its cringe comedy and reflections of the awkwardness of school life. The character of Chad is actually more akin to The Office’s Michael Scott. In a sincere effort to be endearing, Chad ends up cracking inappropriate jokes, disregards—either unintentionally or willfully—other people’s feelings, and inserts himself into other people’s conversations. Chad also lies about everything from losing his virginity to obtaining a pair of Jordans. Pedrad’s vulnerable performance softens the blow of Chad’s narcissism, but despite the show’s creative ideas, it struggles to offset Chad’s vain personality with moments of resolution or growth.

As the show begins, Chad is fixated on becoming bros with cool kid Reid (Thomas Barbusca) instead of hanging out with his sweet best friend Peter (Jake Ryan). Chad’s obsession with Reid keeps growing much like a young adult would experience romantic infatuation, although Chad doesn’t pine for any girl, but Reid and his popularity. Chad gives up a beloved sword for a mere Instagram mention and often bumbles his way through conversations, especially when his wisecracks don’t land. It’s painful to watch him try and angle into group selfies or dump newly purchased shoes in the trash can out of frustration. Chad doesn’t hesitate to invoke brutal, unflinching but brilliant details that add humor as well as a realistic touch to the show. But the main character’s biggest problem isn’t whether others will accept him; it’s his inability to fully embrace his own identity.

Chad refuses to acknowledge he is Muslim because he is afraid of even the slightest possibility that he could be rejected for it. He doesn’t approve of his divorced mother Naz (Saba Homayoon) dating a man named Ikrimah (Phillip Mullings Jr.) until he sees how it can benefit him: Ikrimah is a dashing Black Muslim who might turn into a father figure. Much like he does with Reid, Chad holds on tight to this idea of a bond with his mother’s new boyfriend until he runs it into the ground during one highly uneasy night. Chad goes to great lengths to avoid talking about his Persian culture, including rejecting the music played at his home, but dives into K-Pop music when he joins the school’s Asian Appreciation Club. Naz and his uncle Hamid (Paul Chahidi) like to gently remind Chad he’s Muslim, and his response is usually along the lines of “I’m embarrassed by this fact.”

As shallow as Chad can be, it’s possible to sympathize with the anxiety of a 14-year-old who doesn’t want to be discriminated against—though we don’t see him encounter much of that in the show. Even the kids he tries to latch onto don’t bully him for it in stereotypical ways. In fact, they try to set up healthy boundaries. What holds Chad back is that no one tries to educate the teen on his poor behavior, which stumps his character development and, in turn, the development of the show. Naz, Hamid, and even Chad’s sister Niki (Ella Mika) are comfortable in their skin and have an astute understanding of their culture. But they let Chad’s dismissal of it fly by without many repercussions, which can undermine Chad’s emotional depth.

But in the second half of the season, the show offsets the absurdity with heart. Chad’s clear daddy issues—the reason for him latching onto a “macho” figure—are explored in subtle ways as he comes to examine his relationship with both Hamid and Peter, who go against that type. His oversight of his own ethnicity also comes more into play when Chad focuses on its protagonist’s Muslim identity through the lens of a naive young boy who just really wants to be admired by his peers. Despite his shortcomings, it’s easy to connect with Chad and his adolescent troubles.

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The show is also carried by lovely actors. Homayoon’s performance as Naz is heartfelt (though the character could use a little more backstory), and Chahidi is heartwarming as an ever-doting uncle. The sixth episode, appropriately titled “Hamid,” centers on his character and is one of the most evocative in the season. Pedrad incorporates wigs, oversized T-shirts, a teetering walking style, and a lower-pitched voice, but doesn’t overboard in her performance as a 14-year-old boy. Chad can be just as ungainly as its central character, but given some time to grow, it becomes an earnest charmer.

Staff Writer (TV)