Guys With Kids debuts on NBC tonight at 10 p.m. Eastern. It moves to its regular timeslot, Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m., on September 26.
Erik Adams: For a two-decade-plus stretch between the second season of Cheers and the heyday of the American Office, NBC was the home of sitcoms adored by viewers, critics, and TV professionals alike. And it was good. As the network forged ahead into the 2010s, it built a Thursday-night lineup worthy of any of the programming blocs anchored by Cheers, The Cosby Show, Seinfeld, or Friends, two hours that pushed the situation comedy into more cinematic environs. And it was still good—though niche fare like 30 Rock, Parks And Recreation, and Community never had a chance at earning Huxtable numbers. The Peacock’s comedies lost their once-mighty pull with mass audiences, and in further contrast to their predecessors, had no monster-hit dramas or reality shows to compensate for their lower ratings.
And so it was that NBC boss Bob Greenblatt took the stage at the 2012 Television Critics Association Press Tour and declared that, though he was proud of the work being done with extreme care and respect for the craft (and the occasional bout of toxic prickliness) in Scranton, Rockefeller Center, Pawnee, and Greendale, his network is not in the cult-fostering business. His network is in the empire business. Sure, that’s a paraphrase, but to fans who defended and cherished the NBC comedy brand as it existed from 2006 to 2011, Greenblatt’s words retained a sinister, Walter White-like ring.
Yet, for all the talk of “broad” comedy brought about by the “We [Peacock] Comedy” era, the sitcom pilots on NBC’s fall 2012 slate still cast a narrow net. The New Normal sets out to shock, but might only succeed in reinforcing the negative views of viewers on the most extreme points of the political spectrum. Animal Practice has a monkey, but its hokey premise masks the absurdist beast within. Go On frequently recalls Community, a show that Greenblatt and company love with their words but hurt with their actions.
The last chance for the network’s great, broad hope lies with Guys With Kids, the only multi-camera, studio-audience comedy in the bunch, one which boasts a known quantity in the “created by” credit—Jimmy Fallon, sitting atop a list that includes his Late Night cohort Amy Ozols and Charlie Grandy (late of The Office and Saturday Night Live)—and features a minivan-full of adorable, ratings-grabbing kids. The première screams “aiming for the middle” from the moment it plays the torn-from-real-life gag that inspired Fallon, Grandy, and Ozol’s initial pitch: Three “guy’s guys” watching sports in a bar turn around to reveal they’re each wearing a BabyBjörn. In celebration of a clutch jumper, they bump kids, rather than chests.
Maybe it’s funnier when Jimmy Fallon describes it.
To its credit, the first installment of Guys With Kids eventually moves away from insisting on the inherent humor of its principals—Chris (Jesse Bradford), Gary (Anthony Anderson), or Nick (Zach Cregger), not that you’ll remember any of the adult character’s names at the end of the night—being entrusted with childcare. In doing so, however, the episode moves into additional troubling territories, giving in to the worst impulses of modern sitcom pilots: exposition dumps, overloaded plotting, and a desperation to define six characters in the space of 22 minutes. But when those characters don’t depend on young-parent stereotypes—Gary and his wife Marny (Tempestt Bledsoe) are completely run down by their four kids; Chris’ ex-wife Sheila (Erinn Hayes) is a controlling helicopter mom—they’re just plain flimsy. There’s little to Chris that suggests he ought to be the center of the series, and Bradford, who’s displayed legitimate comic chops on the big screen, looks lost because of it. Often stuck playing opposite an infant, he relies on stagey mugging that would’ve worked in the studio, but doesn’t translate on the screen.
Of course, it could also be that the actor has yet to adjust to the multi-camera format, which does a similar deer-in-headlights number on Jamie-Lynn Sigler in her role as Nick’s wife, Emily. And while Anderson, Bledsoe, and Hayes have been regulars on this type of series before, it’s sketch-comedy veteran Cregger who appears the most comfortable in front of an audience. But when a member of Whitest Kids U’Know is the best part of a half-hour of TV, it can only inspire the faintest of praises.
In a show that it might be the straightforward, traditional sitcom NBC wants, Guys With Kids makes an earnest attempt at telling a self-contained story within its first episode, setting Chris up on a date laden with potential for farcical cover-ups, babysitting-related complications, and multiple chances for his friends to bring the whole thing crashing down around him. Yet, because this is Guys With Kids and not Guy With Kid, Gary and Nick have to have their own intermingling storylines, too—storylines with conclusions that come from left field and feel like interruptions from separate shows. It’s entirely likely that there’s a cut of the pilot somewhere out there that also includes excerpts from Emily and Marny’s night on the town, which would require the fallout from Chris’ date to occur even earlier than it does in the broadcast version.
Guys With Kids could take it easy, leaning hard on its premise and playing to the segments of the audience that cracked up when Chris Rock, Thomas Lennon, and Rob Huebel strode into megaplexes weighed down with diaper bags, spit-up rags, and emergency pacifiers. But in moving past the easy route, the pilot takes a rougher road than it’s prepared for, racing its should-be-ready-for-primetime-but-not-this-kind-of-primetime players through enough story to populate two additional episodes. And, all the while, there are actual children running all over the place, goofing off in the background or sticking their fingers in the adult actors’ mouths at the end of a take. Like actual parents, you have to respect the people behind Guys With Kids for the challenge they’ve undertaken. But in an additional parallel to real life, it’s all too easy to look at that hard work and think, “None for me right now, thanks.”
Keith Phipps: It’s tough to judge a pilot—which has to plant a seed from which a full show can sprout while still being appealing on its own terms—as we’ve talked about here many a time. But it’s worth reprising that talk for Guys With Kids. Not that I think that it has tremendous potential to grow into a show I want to watch. I don’t think it does, honestly. But it embodies a few things that can go wrong with pilots. For starters, it feels fussed-over, as if everyone involved from the writers to the performers were in their 18th attempt to get every line and every line-reading right. Nothing feels spontaneous here. Not that a sitcom of this sort should feel improvised, but it plays like everyone’s so nervous about getting everything right that they’re afraid to have any fun.
Their solution seems to be to PROJECT TO EVERYONE IN AMERICA SITTING ON THEIR COUCH NOT PAYING ATTENTION. This is one loud show: The performances are loud, the deliveries are emphatic, and the studio audience sounds as if it’s being prodded to pump up the fun fun fun we’re all having. It plays like a throwback, not to classic sitcoms but to snobbish parodies of what classic sitcoms were like. This is the sort of show Tony Roberts’ character in Annie Hall gave up doing Shakespeare in the park to make.
Yet, despite the volume, it lost me. Erik, you mentioned not remembering any of the characters’ names by the end of the night. I could barely remember who they were supposed to be by the end of the show, much less care about them and their problems… parenting? That’s what this one’s about, right? For all the talk about kids, everyone here is more concerned about what they could do to leave their kids behind and resume their lives, which is kind of the opposite of what parenting is, in my experience. That’s a shame since there are some talented folks at work here. All I could hope is that they’ll be applying their talents elsewhere soon.