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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Council Of Dads crams a season of schmaltzy storytelling into its premiere

Illustration for article titled iCouncil Of Dads/i crams a season of schmaltzy storytelling into its premiere
Photo: Seth F. Johnson (NBC)
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When NBC closes a weepy family melodrama door, it opens a weepy family melodrama window. Tonight the Peacock Network uses the fourth season finale of its hit series This Is Us to launch a new series that also aims to “tell the story of a family.” Council Of Dads is loosely based on Bruce Feiler’s 2010 memoir The Council Of Dads: My Daughters, My Illness, And The Men Who Could Be Me, which recounts his cancer diagnosis and his idea to enlist six male friends to help raise his young twin daughters in the event of his death. Feiler survived and the council was never “activated,” but since that wouldn’t provide much fodder for an ongoing series, creators and Grey’s Anatomy alum Joan Rater and Tony Phelan mix things up a bit—to uneven results.

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In the TV adaptation, cancer patient Scott Perry (That Thing You Do!’s Tom Everett Scott) has not two but five kids in need of outside parental guidance. The premiere is narrated by his biracial eldest daughter Luly (Michele Weaver), who spent the first eight years of her life growing up with Scott as her devoted single father. Scott then married obstetrician Robin (The Walking Dead’s Sarah Wayne Callies) and they added to their blended family with angsty teen son Theo (Emjay Anthony), thoughtful adopted daughter Charlotte (Thalia Tran), and precocious trans son J.J. (Blue Chapman). By the end of the episode, Robin has given birth to their infant daughter Hope, Scott has died of cancer, and the Council of Dads (we haven’t even gotten to them yet!) has officially been activated to walk Luly down the aisle at her wedding to a young man she meets at the top of the episode.

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Needless to say, it’s a lot to take in, and the decision to have the pilot unfold over the course of a year adds to the whirlwind quality. Yet the weirdest thing about the Council Of Dads premiere is that it feels so complete. It plays less like the intro to an ongoing series and more like a movie in fast-forward or an entire season of TV crammed into a single hour. The image of the Council of Dads walking Luly down the aisle seems like it should be the climax of the first season finale, not the end of the premiere. But Council Of Dads is so eager to balance its inherently sad premise with some emotional catharsis that it rushes to an endpoint that’s anything but earned. This premiere might well make you cry, but it’s in the way you cry at the shorthand of a commercial.

Illustration for article titled iCouncil Of Dads/i crams a season of schmaltzy storytelling into its premiere
Photo: Joe Mast (NBC)

Since this premiere is all backstory and setup, there’s no real sense of what kind of show Council Of Dads is going to be moving forward. While it will presumably center on those titular father-figures, they’re weirdly treated as somewhat of an afterthought here. The one who gets the most screentime is Dr. Oliver Post (J. August Richards), Scott’s oncology doctor and Robin’s best friend. He’s married with a kid, so he represents the earnest family values Scott believes in so much. There’s also roguish chef Anthony Lavelle (Clive Standen), who represents Scott’s ambitious, carefree youth. And most intriguing of all is Larry Mills (Michael O’Neill), the gruffly no-nonsense grandfather figure who represents Scott’s sobriety journey and who’s definitely the sort of character likely to have a big tragic secret that will be revealed over the course of the show.

Yet even with its central council, Council Of Dads lacks a clear set of stakes. In his letters to the Dads, Scott begs them to give his family a year to see if they fall in love with them, but the men are already such enthusiastic family friends that there’s hardly any doubt as to whether they will. (This would be a very different show if Scott’s dying request went out to reluctant participants.) And the three-month time jump to Luly’s wedding confirms that the Council of Dads idea takes pretty well, so, again, I’m not exactly sure what big central question we’re invested in going forward.

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Where This Is Us is specific and—at its best—challenging, Council of Dads is generic and easy. That’s even reflected in its blankly idyllic Savannah, Georgia setting. The Perry family seem to live less in the real world than on a leftover set from a Nicholas Sparks film. And for as much as Council Of Dads embraces the idea of what a 21st century family might look like, it also falls back on some overly familiar TV tropes. Contrasting a serious mom with fun-loving yet heroic dad(s) is hardly charting new territory, not only compared to This Is Us but just compared to pop culture at large.

Illustration for article titled iCouncil Of Dads/i crams a season of schmaltzy storytelling into its premiere
Photo: Joe Mast (NBC)
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What gives me hope for Council Of Dads moving forward is the strength of its cast. While the young performers are a mixed bag, the adult cast is uniformly solid. They all have moments where they make the show’s cheesy dialogue work far better than it has any right to, with Sarah Wayne Callies and the always wonderful Michael O’Neill emerging as particular standouts. This Is Us’ stellar casting is one of things that’s kept that show afloat through its weaker moments, and there’s hope that the talented players of Council Of Dads will be able to do the same.

Unfortunately, it’ll take a while to find out. This premiere is really more of a preview as Council Of Dads isn’t set to return until April 30. That leaves an especially big question mark as to what this show will actually look like going forward. While a good pilot should leave viewers eager to see how the story unfolds from here, Council of Dads’ big pitch seems to be to tune back in to watch these same heartwarming beats repeated in less heartwrenching circumstances. In these strange times, however, maybe something emotional but unchallenging is just what the council ordered.

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Stray observations

  • Tonight’s This Is Us finale also featured the birth of a baby whose name was dramatically revealed to be Hope. Now that’s synergy!  
  • In terms of what Council Of Dads will look like as a series: At the show’s TCA panel, Joan Rater explained, “We will not have flashbacks as the show progresses, the show is very much in the present.” Tony Phelan also noted, “Episodes going forward will play with time, but we don’t span a year with every episode.” Tom Everett Scott is set to make an appearance in at least one more episode, though it won’t be via flashback.
  • I appreciate that J.J.’s story isn’t a coming out story, but it definitely feels like his cutesy precociousness is going to get old real fast. Same for Theo’s teen angst.
  • The great Becky Ann Baker plays Robin’s transphobic mom.
  • I’m hoping the swiftness of Luly’s marriage to Evan (Steven Silver) will fuel their upcoming storylines, because, boy oh boy, does it happen jarringly quickly. Also, that seems like a very elaborate wedding to pull together in just three months.
  • Charlotte’s obsession with The Diary Of Anne Frank is a weirdly dark runner, but it at least suggests that Council Of Dads has a little bit of bite beneath the schmaltz.
  • For the record, Sebastian from The Little Mermaid is a crab, not a lobster.
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Contributor, The A.V. Club. Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. Her interests include superhero movies, feminist theory, and Jane Austen novels.

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