By its fifth episode, “Babe Secret Phone Germs,” the Life In Pieces formula is well established—four mini-sitcoms in one, good comic actors lending individuality where they can, everything wrapped up in a brisk, forgettably pleasant 20 minutes. Initial thoughts that the show was going to use its short story structure (of a family, never forget, named Short) as a more thoughtful storytelling device—while certainly stoked by the novelty of the pilot—turn out to be a case of reviewers (like me) overestimating creator Justin Adler’s ambitions. Which wouldn’t be a problem if the show were using its four-in-one structure to hone sitcom formulas to diamond brilliance, or deconstruct sitcom premises, or even simply go for broke with inventive silliness. Instead, the show has revealed itself as a complacent would-be crowd pleaser with an overqualified cast. And, even under the weight of those diminished expectations, “Babe Secret Phone Germs” sags, thanks in equal measure to lazy writing and some unaccustomed ugliness that comes along with it.
The middle two stories tonight fall under the “cute and forgettable” tent. In one, Tim and Heather’s daughter Sophia (Giselle Eisenberg) manipulates her pop-pop John (James Brolin) into getting her a cellphone against her mom’s wishes. The overly precocious little kid lines aren’t Eisenberg’s fault, but the concept of a small child expertly delivering adult putdowns like “You guys lose your phones every time you go to a wine tasting,” and expertly manipulating grownups was already tired in the pilot. And Brolin—gamely doing the twinkly macho patriarch thing—is as good at playing flustered and secretly afraid to confront the women in his family as it is amiably dull to watch him do so.
Similarly, Thomas Sadoski and Angelique Cabral bring what they can to their “we’re coworkers forbidden to date” office blackmail plot, as Matt and Colleen are caught smooching in the luxurious “forbidden executive lounge” by office sleazebag Ken Marino (bringing the grinning jerk energy he can do so well). Again, if Life In Pieces could find anything new to do with this threadbare conceit, I’d be all for it, but, apart from what the performers can squeeze into their brief running time, there’s not much there. (Sadoski and Cabral continue to give fine, sly banter, and Marino has a nice, sustained piece of butt-work with a picture frame on Cabral’s desk.) As with their wedding hall story from the second episode, Matt makes a goofy romantic gesture—publicly quitting and then planting a juicy kiss on Colleen before striding triumphantly out of the office—which makes the relationship feel genuine and fun (Sadoski and Cabral really do have chemistry).
In the other two stories, though, Life In Pieces’ essential inconsequence gives way to unexamined creepiness, in two different ways. In the first, Tim and Heather’s teenage son Tyler (Niall Cunningham) brings home his first girlfriend, only for literally every gathered member of the Short family to turn into jibbering ninnies because she has fairly large breasts. The girl, Clementine (Hunter King) has no other function—she’s just the boobie girl. She doesn’t act provocatively (or, indeed, do much of anything at all)—she’s just a normal, slightly older, attractive teenage girl who turns all three generations of her new boyfriend’s family into babbling, leering, wisecracking weirdoes. Granted, the weirdoes are played by some very funny people—Dan Bakkedahl’s Tim becomes so self-aware of his inability to stop acting stupid around the girl that he eventually just hands Tyler a handful of money and flees—but the whole concept is so misconceived as to be sort of creepy. (If I were Clementine, I’d be out of there even before Betsy Brandt’s Heather concludes her welcoming toast with, “To boobs!”)
The last story is creepy on a whole other level, as Colin Hanks’ Greg and Zoe Lister-Jones’ Jen call a pest control guy (second Party Down alum of the evening Martin Starr) to take care of the skunk that’s been freaking Greg out, and then spend the rest of the episode treating the good-natured (if undeniably gross) workman like garbage because he has the nerve to ask if he can use their bathroom. Like the Clementine story, this is supposed to be another breezy example of how eccentric and quirky and goofy the Short family is, but, in practice, its unexamined privilege and self-absorption makes them come of like jerks. Starr (nearly unrecognizable under scruffy beard, exaggerated country accent and novelty teeth) may be playing a buffoon who licks the catfood skunk-bait off his thumb and tracks muddy footprints on the floor of the couple’s pristine home, but he’s also friendly, helpful, and, you know, someone they hired to do the unpleasant job Greg and Jen are too quirky and wealthy and ineffectual to do.
When Jen (who also comes off as a scold in the Clementine story) sneers at the fact that Starr’s exterminator mistakenly calls her baby “he” (after he’s glimpsed the infant for exactly two seconds), it’s supposed to get us on the couples’ side—this hick doesn’t even know what sex their baby is! Instead, it’s an example of the show miscalculating audience empathy. Throw in the fact that, once Starr leaves, they frantically scrub their house with extra strength cleaning products, of which Jen states, “I bought it at the Mexican market—there are no rules there,” and the show’s comfortable biases become even clearer. Hanks and Lister-Jones have had to do most of the show’s physical comedy heavy lifting so far, and they’re good at it (opening this segment, Hanks does some great fly-swatting contortions that’d make The Money Pit-era Tom Hanks proud), but once the couple starts mugging to us about how yucky their hired help is, Life In Pieces’ easily digestible comic recipe goes sour.
- Starr’s workman has some great, strange lines, telling Greg and Jen that he has nine kids, “all boys and girls,” helpfully clarifying that “john” means “terlet,” and telling Greg admiringly that Jen “smells like Japanese candy, you know, the kind with the tic-tac-toe game on it.” He’s written to be grubby, but he’s not a bad guy.
- I cannot over-stress how offputting the Shorts’ collective reaction to Clementine is. Jen takes one look and says, “Yeah, I’m not standing next to that,” and then forbids her husband from even talking to the 18-year-old girlfriend of his nephew. Tyler’s uncles and grandfather all group hug him once they find out the girl is over the age of consent. Even the little girl makes cracks about the poor girl’s chest. It’s supposed to be, again, endearingly loopy, I guess? (I kept expecting a cartoon “booooinggg” sound effect whenever the camera cut to her.)
- Joan (Dianne Wiest)‘s advice on parenting: “You let the first two go and you baby the third one until you die.”
- There’s another body type joke in passing later, as Matt lies that he’s actually got a crush on an overweight coworker instead of Colleen, which is supposed to be funny. Because fat people.