The #MeToo movement is still going strong, historic numbers of women are up for election this fall (and voting and protesting across the country), and between Crazy Rich Asians and Netflix’s To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, the stereotypically “female” genre of the rom-com is back with a vengeance. American pop culture is primed for an exploration of the specific, day-to-day experiences of women and the societal pressures they face, and NBC is hoping its new comedy I Feel Bad can fill that niche. Developed by Aseem Batra, I Feel Bad follows video game artist Emet (Sarayu Blue) as she navigates life, hopping between the various roles she plays as a mother, daughter, wife, friend, and boss.
I Feel Bad takes its title from something that many women will identify with: the near-constant hum of guilt and Imposter Syndrome, societal pressures that manifest as voices in the back of one’s head, and judging each choice against an impossible standard. As she describes in the pilot, Emet knows that every day she’ll feel bad about something. What will her “feel-bad” be today? From this premise, each episode jumps into an exploration of a different social or cultural anxiety. The pilot centers on fears of aging and turning into one’s mother; other episodes focus on the cost of emotional labor and the guilt that comes with falling short of the Instagram-perfect family next door. With its first-person voice-over from Emet and central, episodic premises, I Feel Bad feels of a piece with Black-ish (or a far more domestic Sex And The City), and Batra and the writers will have material to draw on as long as women feel overtaxed and under-heard, which is to say, as long as NBC will have the show run.
Episodic, issue-based comedy has had a resurgence in recent years, led by The Carmichael Show, Black-ish, and One Day At A Time, among others, but I Feel Bad is the first to lead with an explicit and distinctly female perspective. This makes for a refreshing and overdue addition to a strong recent canon. The show’s confident presentation of Emet’s experiences gives it a clear and consistent voice, and while the pilot is overly broad—a not-uncommon issue with sitcoms—the following episodes bring more nuance and creativity. It’s too early to say whether the series will earn an equal place alongside those other memorable series, but it’s off to a good start, and a big reason for that is its cast.
Sarayu Blue has solid material to work with as Emet, and her charisma, physicality, and comedic timing are essential to I Feel Bad’s early success. The actor gives Emet a believable blend of warmth, confidence, energy, and patience while leaving space for her insecurities to feel organic. She has clear chemistry with Paul Adelstein, who plays her husband, David, and the pair’s relaxed dynamic feels lived-in from the start. David’s defining characteristics are his propensity to spiral into his neuroses and his frequent exhaustion, both of which Adelstein captures in a nicely subdued way. As working parents of three children, including an infant, the thread that Emet and/or David are constantly tired feels entirely appropriate, and Adelstein gives David a surviving-on-coffee fuzziness that many will relate to.
Blue and Adelstein are joined on the home-front by Madhur Jaffrey and Brian George as Emet’s parents, Maya and Sonny. They work well together and both nail the material they’re given, and will hopefully get even more to play with as the show develops. Centering the series on a woman of Indian descent and including her parents in the main cast not only provides much-needed representations of Indian-American characters on TV, it opens the door for conversations about the unique situations women of color face in America. Rounding out Emet’s home life are her children, baby Jack and tweens Lily (Lily Rose Silver) and Louie (Rahm Braslaw). Silver and Braslaw are used sparingly but to good effect, and both give engaging, entertaining performances.
Emet works as the head artist at a video game company, and the series takes advantage of the gender disparity in the industry to make her the only woman on her team. While it will be important in a show centering women’s experiences for Emet to meaningfully interact with women other than her mother (and one friend, Simone), kicking off the series by featuring discussions between a central female protagonist and a range of different men gives space for Emet to explain experiences her male coworkers haven’t been exposed to, and that many female coworkers wouldn’t need explained.
The writers populate Emet’s team with a fun set of beta-male nerds, including Zach Cherry as Norman, James Buckley as Chewy, and Johnny Pemberton as Griff. These characters feel distinct enough to work as comedic foils for each other while being believable as a cohesive and functioning team. The lack of a stereotypical, chauvinistic alpha-male for Emet, the “strong female lead,” to battle against in the workplace is wonderful, and a very positive sign for the conversations the series is interested in having.
Many sitcoms find their feet over the course of their first season. I Feel Bad starts with a strong grasp on its tone, characters, and voice, putting it miles ahead of many other comedies. Its first episodes may not have audiences laughing out loud, but the seeds of an excellent comedy are present, and given its strong creative team and cast, and most importantly, its clear point of view, this is a series worth tuning in for.