Clockwise, from left: Zoe Lister-Jones, Colin Hanks, James Brolin, Betsy Brandt, Dan Bakkedahl, Niall Cunningham, Thomas Sardoki, Dianne Wiest, Holly J. Barrett, Giselle Eisenberg

Three episodes in, it’s becoming clear that Life In Pieces’ short story approach to the traditional family sitcom isn’t going to make especially ambitious use of its structure. The pilot seemed primed to build its little world in, well, pieces—its brief vignettes about the extended Short family dropped hints rather than spelling things out, and weren’t overly concerned with defining everyone’s relationships or circumstances. There seemed to be as much Arrested Development as there was Modern Family in the mix, which suggested the series would aim somewhere in the middle.

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“Sleepy Email Brunch Tree,” however, is the second episode in a row to reveal that there’s a lot more of the latter in the formula than the former, the show’s structure just novel enough to displace the faux-documentary Modern Family style with a new storytelling gimmick that, in practice, is even less demanding. It’d be irksome if the show weren’t designed not to irk.

The benefits of chopping a 23-minute sitcom into four separate stories is that it’s hard for any single story to wear out its welcome. The downside is that, by setting the Shorts on some well-trodden sitcom adventures, some five-minute segments come perilously close to wearing out their welcome. Luckily, creator Justin Adler assembled a truly overqualified ensemble that carries the show along pleasantly on their not-overburdened backs.

Colin Hanks’ Greg and Zoe Lister-Jones’s Jen are the new parents, so tonight they are sleep-deprived, leading to jokes about whose turn it is to tend to their cranky infant (with a late night diaper run and a run-in with the police thrown in). Betsy Brandt’s Heather and Dan Bakkedahl’s Tim are the harried, older married couple with three kids, so, here, she runs around trying to send an email to the PTA (so she doesn’t get petting zoo duty again), while he’s miffed that she tossed his beloved Mötley Crüe t-shirt in the Goodwill bag. Thomas Sadoski’s Matt brings new girlfriend Colleen (Angelique Cabral) to family brunch, where she receives a convenient rundown of everyone’s idiosyncrasies, along with one surprising piece of news. And the the Short men unsuccessfully chop down a tree.

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It’s tempting to take the show to task for squandering four potential sitcom episodes in favor of treating four stories per episode like sketches—except it’s clear that Life In Pieces wouldn’t be capable of sustaining any of them that long. As it stands, the format sets the modest goal of being pleasantly amusing, and mostly succeeds. That’s not a bad thing, especially considering how good the cast is, both at selling the show’s easily digestible comedy and finding ways to inject their characters with just enough glimmers of inner life to make them engaging.

Colin Hanks

Hanks and Lister-Jones are stuck with the most predictable schtick so far, but they’re both such smart comic actors that their segments are frequently very funny. Tonight, sent on a wee-hours diaper run to the mini-mart, the exhausted and annoyed Greg assures Jen, “I’m going to make everything better, and I promise I’m going to come back,” causing her to ask why he felt it necessary to express that last part. Lister-Jones is stuck complaining for much of her side of the story tonight, but she still sells the hell out of lines like, “I was voted most outgoing at Burning Man and now I’m dreaming about diapers,” and her rant concluding with, “When it’s your turn to feed her, she doesn’t throw up in your mouth.” Hanks is a nimble physical comedian, both his bleary-eyed sleepy acting and his loopy encounter with no-nonsense cop Bokeem Woodbine (who pulled Greg over for driving 14 miles per hour) offering him a chance to do some likably silly bits of business. Sadly, the couple are once again stuck selling the show’s “naughty” material, forcing Lister-Jones to cope with the segment’s “Fist me” punchline, which she weathers as ably as the “frozen surgical glove up the vagina” gag from the pilot.

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The Heather-Tim story is the weakest, with only Brandt’s signature, brittle comic energy livening up her quest to deal with would-be wacky domestic obstacles. She’s funny—running next door to use her parents “whiffy” (wifi), she bemusedly discovers that their password is actually, as her father asserted, just “7”—but the forced shenanigans run out of gas in even the short running time.

James Brolin

The brunch scene showcases Sadoski and Cabral’s chemistry and comic timing (they really do seem like a good match), but it both functions as too-overt parade of exposition, and leads to the revelation that Matt’s been married before (which he hadn’t told Colleen yet). And the tree-cutting scene lets us know that James Brolin’s patriarch is a manly sort who thinks his sons are too soft (Greg does have a remote controlled espresso machine). Oh, and Tim—a middle aged doctor improbably trying espresso for the first time in his life—spends the episode in the bathroom essentially crapping himself inside out.

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It’s all very slight and disposable, with the cast delivering mid-range quips with innocuous cleverness and amusing asides. Brolin’s John smilingly assures Colleen that everyone at their favorite brunch spot knows his usual drink, brushing off the patient waitress’ best, incorrect guesses until he finally gets his Mai Tai. Dianne Wiest’s mom Joan lets out a delighted, “She’s still going!” upon hearing Colleen speak in extended French to the restaurant’s owner. The tree-mangling montage (set to “Holding Out For A Hero”) couldn’t be more ordinary, but seeing Brolin, Sadoski, and Hanks goof around is just the sort of thing that makes for good family fun. Life In Pieces goes down easy like that, both its writing and its structure broken up into sweet, forgettable bites.

Stray observations

  • John, upset at Greg’s supposed lack of manliness: “I haven’t this been this disappointed since you wanted that magician doll last Christmas.” “It was a Darth Vader action figure.” “He had a cape and a magic wand.”
  • More great physical comedy—Hanks trying not to move his head during the traffic stop’s sobriety test.
  • “Actually, I left my car at a bar last night. I think that was a bar.”
  • “What’s brown and sticky? A stick.” That’s a solid little kid joke.

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