By its fourth episode, “Prison Baby Golf Picking,” Life In Pieces is a known quantity. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as the show’s comfortable, low-impact structure is reliably breezy and pleasant, with the outstanding cast infusing their lines with eccentric little character beats throughout. The four episodes per episode structure has been revealed as less a bold exercise in sitcom reimagining and more a strategy to tell four sitcom stories with even less at stake than the traditional sitcom. With each of the four segments packing setup, character development, and denouement into five brisk minutes, there’s virtually no chance for viewers to drop out before the whole episode is over, a marketing strategy proving lucrative for CBS, which has seen the show hold onto a decent chunk of its Big Bang Theory lead-in. If that sounds dismissive, it is, just a little—the concept of the show seemed more ambitious at the outset, but there’s still nothing fundamentally wrong with Life In Pieces, apart from it being—quick-hit structure aside—deeply ordinary.
Tonight, the four stories, as has been the case, set out a very basic sitcom premise for the writers and cast to play with. Even if the idea of a sitcom setting out to build its world in more stand-alone stories hasn’t panned out, the concept of compressing those hackneyed scenarios into perfect little gems of character comedy might be something interesting. Unfortunately, “Prison Baby Golf Picking” doesn’t do much with its four stories, other than set a stopwatch on them and see how much its cast can make out of the footrace.
Luckily, this is a great cast. Colin Hanks—here tasked with selling the “wife and mother fight over how to parent his infant” plot—remains adept at weary underplaying, his Greg making his no-win situation a fine example of everyman comedy. (He makes great use of his ice cream spoon prop while avoiding confrontation with Dianne Wiest’s mom Joan and making restrained panic faces.) He and Zoe Lister-Jones continue to make a fine comic team as the new parents, but there’s only so much they can do here, their character outlines being so bounded by the broad strokes of the story. When Lister-Jones’ Jen responds to his exasperation at being caught between his wife and his mother by cracking, “You’ll feel bad either way,” it creaks with the weight of sitcom cliché. The fact that the creaks whiz by faster on this show doesn’t render them any less tiresome.
The golf outing—with Dan Bakkedahl’s son-in-law Tim reveling in a potential victory over James Brolin’s macho John—is the episode’s broadest, and limpest. Again, the setup is standard stuff (I’m recalling “gain respect of your elders through golf” episodes of The Simpsons and Perfect Strangers just off the top of my head), which wouldn’t be an issue if the episode found much more to do with it than give its cast a chance to be sort of adorable. Which they are—sons Greg and Thomas Sadoski’s Matt make a fine Greek chorus, muttering storm warnings about their dad’s inevitable meltdown. (Their debate about which of Tim’s fingers to break is amusing—obviously, it’s the middle one, so he always looks like he’s flipping the bird.) Betsy Brandt’s Heather shows up for a welcome drop-in, too, coming at her brothers’ request to tell Tim to throw the match, and responding to Tim asking her if she ever thought that John would respect him more if he won with a pitch perfect “No, I never thought that because I don’t have dumb thoughts.” Still though, in the end, Tim’s left flustered and flailing away in the sand after he blows it, sort of an apt metaphor for how the episode peters out here.
Heather and Tim’s story—where youngest daughter Sophia is too afraid to sleep alone in her new bedroom (she also has a peanut stuck in her nose)—works a bit better, as the couple’s dynamic continues to play around with the “smart wife-goofball husband” cliché. I mean, they both are exactly that, but Bakkedahl and Brandt work well together, their seeming mismatch largely free from the putdown humor that usually accompanies such an arrangement. Instead, the two make a good parenting team, working out together how to address the fact that, not only is Sophia afraid of the eye-shaped air vents in their new home, but that she also seems obsessed with picking her nose. (Tim brainstorming ideas, warns that they can’t make a big deal out of it, or “she’ll fetishize it, and then, when she’s 35, she’ll be buying boogers on Craigslist.”) And the payoff, with older sister Samantha coming to sleep with Sophia after all, is a nice, quiet little moment.
The weirdest, and best, segment tonight sees the return of Chad, the oddball ex-husband of Angelique Cabral’s Colleen. Facing minimum security prison time (“It’s not Guantanamo Bay, they have a water slide,” counsels Colleen) for tax evasion, Chad’s final request—after one last bonk is shot down—for a meal with Colleen’s granny (Tonita Castro), gives Jordan Peele ample opportunity to do his thing. Chad’s broad, what with his (male) dog named Princess, and his passive aggressiveness, and his inability to let Colleen go (“Why is he always peering through things?,” she muses to the annoyed Matt), but Peele is an expert at filling out one-note characters with fully-formed personalities, and his Chad is consistently funny. Whether engaging in an elaborate handshake with Granny (who loves him), or crooning a soothing version of Santana’s “Smooth” after Matt makes a faux pas at lunch, or delightedly telling Matt “To be honest, man, I think that actually went pretty terrible for you,” or simply bolting from Colleen’s car on the way to jail with a precisely strange running motion, Peele makes Chad the sort of idiosyncratic character that sticks in the mind. (“He didn’t use to be this weird,” Colleen informs Matt, suggesting even more of Chad’s backstory.) Cabral and Thomas Sadoski continue to make a fun couple, matching wry asides and showing genuine warmth for each other. Their story tonight, like most of Life In Pieces, is the sort of thing that’d be easily forgotten without Peele in the mix.
- It seems the order of the stories may have been switched for this episode at some point, as the stories actually play out as “Prison Baby Picking Golf.” Presumably, someone thought the broad humor of the golf segment was a better way to end things than the sweet little moment where the two sisters share a bed.
- Betsy Brandt’s delivery makes Heather’s assessment of her mother funnier than it should be: “Don’t let Mom fool you with that voice of caramel—she will cut a bitch.” (Her Dianne Wiest impression is pretty spot-on, too.)
- Chad, desperately attempting to be nonchalant as he consults his list of final requests (all but one of which involve sleeping with Colleen): “This is a standard practice that everyone knows about and does.”
- Life In Pieces keeps trotting out “naughty” lines as if they’re just what we’re hoping for. Tonight, it’s Tim’s “You guys need to play with my balls—I think they’re lucky.” (He bought personalized golf balls.)
- “You’re playing like Tiger Woods now, but by the end of the day you’ll be playing like Tiger Woods now.”
- After getting “Noonan”-ed by his dad’s distraction on his back swing, Hanks’ Greg lets out a muttered “Double farts!” as he walks away, proving that Caddyshack will remain in the zeitgeist for another year.
- Having watched the first few episodes via screener, I wasn’t aware that CBS was spoiling jokes for upcoming segments with interstitial mini-clips before the commercial breaks. One—CBS should not do that. Two—in a show seemingly geared for short attention spans, is CBS worried that people can’t stick around for the next five-minute segment without a teaser?