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In its second episode, Life In Pieces is already too cozy

Zoe Lister Jones, Colin Hanks, Thomas Sadoski, Betsy Brandt, Dan Bakkedahl (CBS)
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Life In Pieces’ second episode suggests the show’s ambitions are a shade lower than the pilot led viewers (and this reviewer) to believe. While there was never any question that CBS and creator Justin Adler viewed Life In Pieces as a comfy ensemble family sitcom of the lucrative Modern Family ilk, the series’ short story structure as presented in the pilot hinted at a narrative adventurousness that “Interruptus Date Breast Movin’” already walks back a few steps.

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First, the show, which in its first outing was content to let the sprawling family’s interrelationships emerge in allusive snatches, here takes every opportunity to fill in the blanks with the sort of bald exposition people who know each other well don’t need. So in the first story, where Thomas Sadoski’s Matt catches a very unwanted glimpse of the primal scene when he bursts in on parents James Brolin and Dianne Wiest on the sofa, we’re immediately flooded with the details of everyone’s life. Matt’s broke and has moved into his parents’s garage and not his old bedroom because “then it would feel too real.” When, in the second story tonight, Matt goes on a disastrous second date with Anjelique Cabral’s Colleen, he gives Colleen a big, date-saving speech where we also find out his age, financial status, and the fact that she’s his boss. It’s not that we shouldn’t expect these details, it’s that they come out so perfunctorily, when it seemed like Life In Pieces was content to let us pick up facts as needed. It’s as if network notes finally got through telling Adler that viewers needed to be reassured that the show wasn’t going to do anything too different.

James Brolin, Thomas Sadoski
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Which brings up the second disappointment tonight, as the short story structure is looking already less like a stylistic innovation and more like a gimmick to let Life In Pieces get away with quick-hit gags that couldn’t sustain an entire episode. If Modern Family has run the to-the-camera confessional as connective storytelling tissue into the ground, Life In Pieces here looks poised to simply do away with the need to connect its stories at all. (Or, in Matt’s case tonight, simply break up his one story over two shorter ones and call them separate pieces.) In the pilot, the thinness of the storylines looked to be part of a conscious plan to actually tell a family sitcom in pieces, a genuinely different narrative style where we’d be asked to let the bigger picture come into gradual focus. In only its second episode, the show seems in a rush to establish a nice, bland baseline so viewers don’t get left behind (and change the channel). It’s especially disappointing here, since a few of the stories tonight are as broad and indifferent as they come.

In the thinnest of the bunch, Tim and Heather and their kids are moving to a new house (one conveniently right across the street from her parents as it turns out), kicking off a “wacky movers” subplot. Since Heather’s hired an all ex-con moving company, that means a montage of the burly workmen blowing their company-mandated coaches’ whistles whenever they come across drugs or alcohol in their work. (One especially squirrelly mover blows his at the sight of the couple’s elder—but underage—daughter.) Dan Bakkedahl and Betsy Brandt (and Sadoski’s Matt, along to help and take the bullet for teenage Tyler when a worker discovers his stash—of a single ADD pill) are all fine comic actors, so they mange to wring some laughs out of it, but the story is every predictable sitcom beat in rapid succession, paying off with a telegraphed gag that closes the episode in dispiriting fashion.

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Zoe Lister Jones, Colin Hanks, Thomas Sadoski, Giselle Eisenberg, Betsy Brandt, Niall Cunningham, Dan Bakkedahl, Holly J. Barrett

Similarly, the first story sees Wiest (who, it seems, is a therapist) forcing her entire extended family to undergo communication training exercises when she determines that all their texting and such isn’t healthy. Again—broad, predictable setup which, freed from any need to tie into a larger narrative, just floats away inconsequentially. The thing that saves it—and may yet save Life In Pieces—is the uniformly fine cast, who are all proving adept at finding little moments of individuality in the proceedings. What remains promising as well is that no one here is required to be dumb—they’re all sitcom quirky and capable of bad decisions (tonight Matt allows Brolin’s John to start his balky car by pouring tequila into the engine, for example), but there’s a common thread of wry intelligence binding the Short family together. It makes them seem like they’re a real family (whether blood-related or romantically integrated), and goes a long way toward making the less-promising stories palatable. Brothers Matt and Colin Hanks’ Greg spend their mandatory team building exercise goofing off, seeing if they can say the same word at the same time, a game one imagines they’ve employed many times in response to their mom’s enthusiastic schemes. (They don’t do it, but are delighted that they say “rhinestone” and “cowboy” all at once.)

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James Brolin, Betsy Brandt, Giselle Eisenberg, Dan Bakkedahl

The performance aspect truly and necessarily comes into play when Greg and Zoe Lister Jones’ Jen have to cope with both a breastfeeding story and a pair of would-be hilarious “lactation consultants” played by the undeniably funny Stephnie Weir and Rhys Darby. These two have already run through a lot of items from the “kooky new parents” joke list, so seeing Jones with twin breast pumps in place, and the couple dealing with New Age-y breastfeeding zealots (cue hour-long circle boob-grab) doesn’t bring much new to the table, but Hanks and Jones are a great team. Again, their easy, lived-in chemistry (and sense of humor) makes their relationship makes sense, and they’re both adept at shooting a shared skeptical look at the craziness around them. Hanks has a great forbearing side-eye, which he casts on the very handsy consultants once it sinks in that they—boob-grabbing and all—are not a couple but brother and sister, and Jones is right there with him, dropping in an impeccably timed “That’s what got me,” a beat after Hanks says an incredulous “sister.” It’s not clear the show has more in store for these two characters but more of the same, but the actors are fun to watch at least.

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There are lots of moments like that in Life In Pieces. Wiest has a delightful giggle fit when she realizes that Matt’s sofa-lost phone has made her an accidental “porn star.” Bakkedahl is finding a smarter version of the goofball dad alongside the always energetic and present Brandt. And Cabral and Sadoski continue to make Matt and Colleen’s new relationship endearingly eccentric without becoming cloying. In the episode’s best touch, he ends their calamitous date (his tequila-mobile catches fire) by forcing the wedding venue that won’t give Colleen a refund for her cancelled nuptials to bring out the deejay and champagne just for the two of them. It’s sweet and funny, with a light touch the short story format is just made for.

Stray observations

  • I know some people hire movers to actually pack their stuff for them, but do they leave the contents of their dresser drawers and medicine cabinets for the movers if not out of comic necessity?
  • Cabral brings a great comic desperation to her half of the bad date, her suppressed sorrow over her not-wedding day causing her to quietly drink as many margaritas as she can without being noticed. When she feigns ignorance at her next drink’s quick appearance, the waitress reminds her, “You grabbed my forearm and told me to keep them coming.” By the end, she appears to be drinking one made in a coffeepot.
  • Matt on seeing his parents together: “It was like watching two candles melt onto each other.”
  • Greg, when Wiest asks Jim to imagine how his baby would feel if he saw he and Jen having sex: “Our baby only really sees shapes and colors right now, Mom. So at this point it’d really be guesswork.”
  • Points off for the lack of Jordan Peele tonight. I have it on good authority, however, that weird Chad will return.
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