TV Land has a dependable slate of multi-camera sitcoms that bank on the power of mass nostalgia. Hot In Cleveland is the biggest offender (and success story) of this programming model, but sitcoms like The Exes, The Soul Man, and Kirstie have only followed suit. It’s not just a nostalgia trip for the stars of these shows—though when someone like Carol Burnett comes on-screen and there’s a 30-second pause for applause, it sort of is—it’s a nostalgia for the simpler times of the multi-camera sitcoms. It’s that “good old days” mentality, reminding people of the types of sitcoms that put TGIF on the map—the type of sitcoms that would gather families around the television.
Jennifer Falls is TV Land’s first foray into the world of the single-camera sitcom, and even with a format change, there’s still that sense of nostalgia-baiting. First there’s the show’s star, Jaime Pressly, playing a Jennifer whose surname unfortunately isn’t Falls. It’s easy to forget now that My Name Is Earl was a pretty big hit for NBC early on, one that made Pressly an Emmy winner in 2007. That, combined with the presence of Earl co-star Ethan Suplee as Jennifer’s younger brother, Wayne, factors right into the the TV Land formula of bringing in faces the audience will remember. Throw in Arrested Development’s Jessica Walter (already a veteran of TV Land’s Retired At 35) as their self-absorbed mother, and Jennifer Falls is on the way to something stable.
It’s a good cast, which is nothing new to TV Land sitcoms. But where the network’s other originals tend to be over-the-top displays of comedy, Jennifer Falls’ single-camera status breaks away from that pattern. The pilot was originally developed as the typical TV Land multi-camera comedy, but it was converted to single-camera upon pilot order, like a reverse Up All Night. The result is a sitcom with potential that still lacks in some areas. From a formatting standpoint, the voiceover and talking-head sequences come off like extra padding intended to fill in gaps left over from the conversion to single camera. It works at first, but there are diminishing returns with each use; by the end of the pilot, the necessity of the talking heads in particular is called into question.
Although Jennifer Falls is a deviation from the superficial norm for the network, it still achieves the status quo for a TV Land sitcom. On premise alone, the show fulfills the network’s go-to premise for its series: moving in and/or moving on. Jennifer is a big-shot investment banker who, after getting fired, blackballed, and evicted, packs up her life—as well as that of her teenage daughter Gretchen (Dylan Gelula)—and moves back in with her mother. That reconnects her with the childhood friend who now hates Jennifer for changing (Missi Pyle) and a rival (Nora Kirkpatrick, delightfully playing an older, more passive aggressive version of her character from Greek) who’s married to Wayne.
While she attempts to get back on her feet, Jennifer ends up working at Wayne’s bar as a waitress, in between unwanted therapy sessions from her mother and other readjustments to life among the common folk. It’s a straightforward homecoming premise with funny beats peppered throughout. The wackiest moment of the pilot involves minor vehicular assault, but somehow the show is able to turn it into a heartwarming moment. That’s a good sign.
There are two entertaining sitcoms within this setup—unfortunately, only the safer one got made. With a corporate-set cold open, the show momentarily touches on the implications of a woman being fired for a trait that would lead to a man’s success, and it’s here that Jennifer Falls is at its most reminiscent of past ABC single-camera sitcoms Samantha Who? and Better Off Ted. (That shouldn’t be too much of a surprise since Jennifer Falls’ showrunner, Matthew Carlson, previously wrote for the former.) In fact, Jennifer Falls’ cold open could’ve taken place at Chapman And Funk or Veridian Dynamics—it could’ve even led to a great workplace comedy.
But that’s not the path Jennifer Falls chooses. The unpleasant personality that gets Jennifer fired is nowhere near as unpleasant is it’s made out to be, and it’s negated by evidence that she’s a good mother and a compassionate friend, sister, and daughter—she’s clearly someone who cares about the friends she’s hurt. Continuing the thread between this show and Samantha Who?, if cold open Jennifer Doyle is Bad Sam (presumably without the sociopathic tendencies), then Jennifer after her fall from grace is Good Sam. And who didn’t secretly yearn for more Bad Sam? There is a funny show in what is there, though, and the cast is likable enough to pull off the pilot’s broader moments. It simply needs to live in the now, decide what it wants to be, and stay true to itself. Much like Jennifer herself, Jennifer Falls is a work in progress.