Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in this, our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, the TV Reviews section doesn't replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.
In the most blithely offensive scene of its pilot, the main characters of new sitcom Dads, played by Giovanni Ribisi and Seth Green, ask their Asian-American assistant Brenda Song to wear a Japanese schoolgirl outfit. No nod is made toward the fact that the video-game investors Song is meant to be impressing are Chinese, while she’s explicitly playing off of Sailor Moon. Nor is the joke developed in any way whatsoever. It’s supposed to be enough that Song walks out in the costume to an approving roar from the audience, just as it’s supposed to be enough in the show’s second episode when Martin Mull, as one of the two oblivious fathers of the title, responds to a character who declines to eat penguin meat because he’s Jewish with, “It’s free.” The audience roars every time, and what becomes rapidly clear is that Dads may be racist and sexist, but it’s not racist and sexist by design. Instead, bad execution makes it so.
Dads executive producer Seth MacFarlane traffics in ironic racism, but that works best in the animated sphere. The funhouse quality of animation allows distance, letting a Family Guy viewer laugh either at a racial stereotype or at the show’s attempts at puncturing said stereotype and those who still hold it. It’s the perfect form of plausible deniability—the joke’s not on Asian Americans or women or Latinos; it’s on the people who hold regressive views about them.
Dads puts the lie to that idea. Though MacFarlane is only producing this one—Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild created it, and longtime Simpsons hand Mike Scully joined as showrunner—the fingerprints of his television factory are all over the material. There are pop-culture references aimed at kids who grew up in the ’70s and ’80s. There’s a laid-back, frat-guy vibe that feels at once alienating and sleepy. There’s recycling of sitcom tropes that were tired in 1983. Some awkward attempts at heart have been stitched onto the end of the episode, Frankenstein’s-monster-style. And, yes, there are lots and lots of jokes taking aim at so-called political correctness.
The problem with these jokes is that they do nothing but signify the audience is meant to laugh at something simply because it’s shocking. There’s no point-of-view animating Mull asking Ribisi if he’s playing a video game called Punch The Puerto Rican. The show neither attempts to undercut nor bolster what Mull is saying, thereby further developing the joke. It’s just something the studio audience is meant to roar at because an older man is saying something so outrageous. The audience is only too happy to oblige.
The reason Dads’ ironic racism, sexism, and ageism feels so different from the rest of MacFarlane’s product is specifically because it’s placed in front of a studio audience. All In The Family showrunner Norman Lear understood that uncorking these sorts of demons in front of an audience required patience and proper character development. The team behind Dads just lets them out all over the place, assuming that saying something shocking is reason enough to say it. But the protective remove of animation is absent in a multi-camera sitcom, where the audience becomes an additional character.
Worse, in the second episode, it sounds like that audience consists of about 35 drunks who’ve been coached to hoot and holler loudly at everything said, as if Fox were still passing out the Married… With Children audience guidelines. Underlining a gag intended as ironic racism with boisterous live laughter just turns it into actual racism, because it offers up a ready-made group of faceless people to laugh at those without power when they’re put down by those with power.
To its credit, Dads seems to understand this was the case after hearing critical reaction to the disastrous pilot, which featured Peter Riegert mistaking Vanessa Lachey (as Ribisi’s wife) for the maid and an actual Latina maid who’s primarily meant to be funny because she has an accent, in addition to Song’s schoolgirl stint. To combat this, however, the producers spend the second episode simply making everyone thoroughly unlikeable, recasting the female characters as unrepentant bitches who may as well be chasing around the male characters with rolling pins.
Some of this might be forgivable if Dads showed even the slightest spark of originality. But from the premise—two older fathers have to move in with their younger, hipper sons—on down, everything in Dads reeks of having been pulled out of the back of the fridge. The jokes can be seen coming from a mile away, and far too many fall into simply mentioning something and hoping the audience will laugh because it recognizes what’s being talked about. The portrayal of the video-game company that Ribisi and fellow lead Seth Green work at would have been right at home in the old CBS Peter Scolari vehicle Dweebs, and the major storyline of the second episode revolves around the most well-worn plaything in the desperately-longing-to-be-transgressive TV toybox: pot brownies.
Mull and Riegert are occasionally fun as the two dads, particularly when they harmonize about Eskimos while high in the second episode. Song does her best with an impossible part, mostly creating hope that she might escape through the back wall of the set and return to Scandal. And if Ribisi is trying too hard (and he is), then he pales in comparison to Green, who’s mugging like a character from Step By Step.
Or maybe everybody in this knows they’re trapped in a dog of a show. The writing never rises above cliché, while the direction and editing often feature jarring cuts that break some of the most basic rules of cinematic grammar—to say nothing of multi-camera sitcom grammar. At all times, Dads feels assembled by people who have sniveling contempt for their audience, figuring that this is just the stupid bullshit people who watch network TV might want. They may be proved right by that, but the American public rarely embraces shows as transparently awful as Dads.
Created by: Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild
Starring: Giovanni Ribisi, Seth Green, Martin Mull, Peter Riegert
Debuting: Tuesday at 8 p.m. Eastern on Fox
Format: Multi-camera half-hour sitcom
Two episodes watched for review