Surviving Jack is a show about a real-life father-son relationship that has already proven to be quite lucrative. Justin Halpern spun odd remarks from his father into first a Twitter account, and then a book, and then a television show starring William Shatner: the creatively punctuated (and swiftly canceled) S#*! My Dad Says. Halpern followed up that book with a second, I Suck At Girls, that covers a lot of the same territory, though through the lens of flashback. Surviving Jack is the show that comes from that second book. So instead of the 79-year-old Shatner in the lead role—with a slightly senile, slightly crotchety approach to the present day—it’s a chiseled, 53-year-old Christopher Meloni responding with strapping sarcasm to the wild world of 1991.
It’s not bad material. Meloni is brilliant as a comic lead—a talent of his that was largely wasted in his most famous role as Detective Stabler in Law And Order: SVU. But before that, Meloni was the unhinged cook Gene in Wet Hot American Summer and even co-starred in Runaway Bride, where he played the guy Julia Roberts was going to marry right before Richard Gere shows up. His turn as Jack is more like the latter than the former. Meloni’s an imposing physical presence, so rather than milk scenes for comedy by going over-the-top, he’s learned to let silence do the talking. He’s so deadpan, he might be insane—but in a good-natured, well-intentioned way. In the first few episodes of Surviving Jack, he fakes a heart attack to “toughen up” his son for varsity baseball tryouts. His son is terrified—but hey, by the end of the episode, he makes the team! No harm, no foul, right?
Surviving Jack does well, too, to tap into ’90s nostalgia. It’s not rendered as exquisitely as it could be—television shows like The Americans and Mad Men have set a high bar for period pieces—but the music, cars, and even established values seem ported over directly from Full House and Family Matters, even if the set pieces thankfully aren’t. The result is a family sitcom that is nostalgic, but not dated.
Meloni is always a treat to watch, and Connor Buckley, who plays the narrator-hero, meets his talent relatively well. Rachael Harris plays Mrs. Jack ably, and Claudia Lee, as the attitudinal teenage daughter of the family, steals a good number of her scenes by making the most of a small part.
But the show lacks a certain driving force, in part because it is so stuck in nostalgically fawning over its father figure. The first episode starts with a voiceover by the now grown-up son, Frankie, and the narration doesn’t ever quite go away. It’s often such a lazy way to tell a story—merely a tool for both cheap nostalgia and easy exposition.
And that’s especially frustrating because Buckley, as teen Frankie, is capable of selling wide-eyed and clueless all on his own, without any extra framing. Surviving Jack has a little bit of the subject matter and charm of Freaks And Geeks, except it focuses on the gawky son instead of the rebellious daughter. But the show hasn’t decided if it’s really committing to telling Frankie’s story or Jack’s story.
Harris’ casting as the wife is also a little perplexing. She has proven herself a very funny actress in guest roles on New Girl and Happy Endings, and she’s funny in this role, too. But the original pilot for Surviving Jack cast a far blander actress as a foil to Meloni’s semi-insanity. Weirdly, it worked better. The family dynamics were more obvious—the dad is slightly nutty, but reined in by his more grounded wife. And in that earlier pilot, there was a stronger premise for why the teenagers are dealing with their odd father now—Mrs. Jack is going back to school to get a law degree, so Jack has to do more, you know, parenting. In its current incarnation, both parents are a little kooky, and the focus of the show is less on the father-son relationship and more just on being a sitcom family set in 1991.
Which is too bad. Even though the father-son territory has been trod before—in Halpern’s body of work alone!—it’s also where the show feels most alive. One of the taglines for the show is “A boy becomes a man, and a man becomes a father, in a time before coming of age was something you could Google.” And though the last half of the sentence is a bit laughable—the Internet! So scary! Our lives! So different!—the first half feels like a truth that has made shows about families fly for decades. Parenting is a dynamic learning process, as shows like Freaks And Geeks and My So-Called Life have shown. Surviving Jack has the potential (and the right time period) to be a show about growing up that echoes its forbears. Whether it finds a story as something larger and more significant than “shit my dad says” remains to be seen.