How To Live With Your Parents (For The Rest Of Your Life) debuts tonight at 9:30 p.m. on ABC.
The cumbersomely titled How To Live With Your Parents (For The Rest Of Your Life) arrives with the stink of a stop-start, tooled-and-retooled development: original supporting players Orlando Jones and Rebecca Delgado Smith out, Joe Wengert and Stephanie Hunt in; a midseason companion, Family Tools, that had its initial episode order cut from 13 to 10; a January debut date eventually pushed deeper into the spring. And yet the family comedy’s debut has earned ABC’s post-Modern Family-timeslot stamp of approval. Is this evidence of the network over-polishing a turd, or a sign of faith shown to a cast of returning primetime favorites like Sarah Chalke and Brad Garrett?
Turns out it’s a little bit of column A and a little bit of column B: How To Live With Your Parents isn’t a complete disaster that can only be improved by following up the latest Pritchett-Dunphy-Tucker-Delgado exploits—but the three episodes screened for critics don’t evince the generally consistent quality or distinct personality of its primetime neighbors. It’s not as well-observed as The Middle, as playfully surrealistic as Suburgatory, or as tooled for mass appeal as Modern Family. There’s a hint of a hook—through which jokes push once or twice every half-hour—but what’s airing tonight and in future weeks suggests a short stay for How To Live With Your Parents on the Wednesday-night cul-de-sac.
The series stars Sarah Chalke as Polly, a freshly divorced single mother whose conservationist ambitions earned her a layabout, doomsday-prepping ex-husband and a job at a natural-foods grocery store. That’s a whole show in and of itself, but How To Live With Your Parents goes one step further by moving Polly into the house of her free-spirited parents (Elizabeth Perkins and Brad Garrett), swinging ’70s types who sold out to the extent that they could afford the tastefully appointed ranch-style house that serves as the series’ home base. Their unorthodox approach to parenting has produced an adult Polly racked with anxiety and insecurities, which she’s passed on to/projected upon daughter Natalie (Rachel Eggleston). And we know all of this because it’s stated very, very baldly at various intervals throughout the pilot.
How To Live With Your Parents (For The Rest Of Your Life) is steeped in the real-life experiences of Knots Landing-star-turned-TV-writer Claudia Lonow. It’s a long-in-the-works passion project, though what shows up on screen feels like an uplifting, mid-life-crisis memoir being forced into the clothes of a half-hour comedy. For such a personal story, there’s not much of a perspective given on the humbling-yet-somewhat-liberating act of moving back in with the people who raised you—instead, there’s by-the-numbers material about Polly not repeating her parents’ mistakes and trying to get back into the dating pool following the end of her marriage. Chalke’s natural twitchiness serves the situation well, but her relationship with Elizabeth Perkins and Brad Garrett’s characters plays out like one between roommates, not a daughter and her parents. Polly’s misgivings about Elaine and Max’s laissez faire parenting creates some conflict, but otherwise the situation itself is played for gentle laughs: fears of a key party breaking out while grandma and grandpa are babysitting, or the farcical hoops the character must jump through to hide her living situation from potential suitors. Garrett and Perkins know from comedies where intergenerational strife could be played for caustic laughs, so it’s a change of pace to see them as reforming hippie-dippy types who’d never intentionally hurt Polly’s feelings. Still, for such a meaty premise, How To Live With Your Parents often lacks teeth.
It’s the game cast that’s keeping this whole enterprise above water: Perkins can occasionally disappear into caricature—a brassy, grande dame of the wine-and-cheese-festival circuit—but she and Garrett play off one another nicely. Where character quirks like an orchiectomy (he’s only got one ball!) and his choice of exercise clothes (a sweater and jeans! Whadda weirdo!) fail to shade his character, Garrett’s hangdog expressions and grasp of his imposing physicality bring out the over-the-hill-but-willing-to-climb-back-up facets of Max. Like the clutter strewn about Elaine and Max’s house, the scripts tend to weigh their principals down with little curios of personality—it’s the actors that are doing most of the heavy lifting involved in creating their characters. When Polly’s ex, Julian, is allowed to be more than LifeHammers and stolen cream sodas, his performer, John Dore, shines. Otherwise, he’s stuck thanklessly playing a clone of Paul Rudd’s character from Our Idiot Brother.
The series appears to clear some of the clutter as its first (and likely only) season proceeds—ABC also sent out How To Live With Your Parents’ third and fifth episodes, which downplay Polly’s work life (so sorry for the reduced Stephanie Hunt fix, Friday Night Lights fans) and introduce a romantic interest in the form of Veep’s Reid Scott. And those later episodes display the budding of a legitimate sense of humor. There’s a great bit involving giant inflatable hammers in episode five that might not make a dent on another comedy, but it makes twice the impact on a show that doesn’t so much rely on surprise to get laughs, but rather expects a single surprise and/or idiosyncrasy to carry the comedy.
In fact, like a lot of mid- to high-concept TV comedies, How To Live With Your Parents (For The Rest Of Your Life) just might place too much faith in its out-of-the-ordinary premise. There are only so many ways in which Sarah Chalke can wince her way through Elaine’s attempts to set her daughter up with friends who “look like various stages of Kenny Rogers.” (Points for specificity; points off for that being the show’s second variation on the gag.) Lonow has lived a unique life, and it’s a story that ought to be told—it’s just that this version is too insistent on pointing out how unique Lonow’s life is. And that existence comes at the expense of jokes worth laughing at and characters worth warming up to.