In addition to winnowing the “half hour” down to a paltry 21 minutes, demand for commercial time has forced the TV sitcom to undergo an awkward metamorphosis, squeezing four acts out of scripts that used to call for three. Some shows struggle to maintain their comic momentum across that extra ad break; others, like modern-day Simpsons, wrap things up in the third act and treat the fourth like an extended tag. (And that’s how you get a season finale that wraps with an out-of-left-field Simpson family hoedown.)
And though Life In Pieces creator Justin Adler cites televised packages of Looney Tunes as his inspiration for writing four short stories every week and calling it a family comedy, there’s an unspoken bit of savviness at play. Taking a big bet on an unorthodox format, Life In Pieces’ premiere works with, rather than against, the restrictions of its timeslot.
The show has novelty on its side, but it also has a talented ensemble that’s under (by a guesstimate) half of the time crunch of the average sitcom cast. The first three self-contained quarters of Life In Pieces each concern a different segment of the extended Short family; the fourth one brings them all together. There’s Matt (Thomas Sadoski) who lives at home with mom (Dianne Wiest) and dad (James Brolin)—much to the surprise of new fling Colleen (Angelique Cabral). Greg Short (Colin Hanks) and his wife Jen (Zoe Lister Jones) just had their first kid, entering a stage in their life that Greg’s sister Heather (Betsy Brandt) and her husband Tim (Dan Bakkedahl) are just starting to exit. Heather and Tim are introduced at the beginning of a campus visit with college-bound Tyler (Niall Cunningham), accompanied by sulky Samantha (Holly J. Barrett) and precocious Sophia (Giselle Eisenberg). It’s a metric ton of character information that the first episode mostly pulls off; it’s impossible to remember anyone’s name that isn’t “Tyler” or “Joan,” and that’s just because those are the names that are repeated most frequently. A joke about dad forgetting Jen’s name would lampshade this—if there was anyone other than Wiest around to call Brolin “John.”
On a macro level, the first Life In Pieces is overstuffed. But on the micro level that makes it unique, it’s keenly calibrated. Jones, an A-plus expression artist with a killer deadpan, clicks into Hanks’ inherited sense of comedic panic, making for confident new parents who are always a second away from completely falling apart. (So they’re new parents.) Elsewhere, the school-age Shorts reach personal milestones in rapid succession, while Heather and Tim fumble with the fact that there are no bedrooms to send their kids to when the family’s staying in a hotel. The Modern Family comparisons are unavoidable (and emphasized with former Modern Family hand Jason Winer directing the pilot and executive producing), and Brandt and Bakkedahl strike a distinctly Claire-and-Phil dynamic in their first outing as Heather and Tim. But the actors are too good to let their characters become carbon copies—and before things can get too Dunphy-like, it’s on to the next story.
Life In Pieces’ greatest asset could become its greatest liability, as the series wolfs down potential stories four at a time. But if they’re as funny, well acted, and snappy as the stories in the premiere episode, it’ll be worth it to watch whatever stories Life In Pieces gets to tell. Like the Bugs Bunny shorts in Adler’s memory, the show is in a business of volume, which means the jokes that don’t land (like the Predator/post-labor-vagina gag dominating CBS’ promotional campaign) are drowned out by the ones that do. The format also creates a demand for guests starts that can go toe-to-toe with the cast, like newly minted free agent Jordan Peele, who makes the most of his limited screen time as Colleen’s disgruntled ex-fiancé. And making the most out of limited time—onscreen or with your family—is what Life In Pieces is all about.
Reviews by Dennis Perkins will run weekly.