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“The Trial,” the second episode of The Jim Gaffigan Show’s second season, should be, for all intents and purposes, unwatchable. On paper, it sounds horrific: A white man tries to explain why he shouldn’t be scrutinized for making a mildly offensive joke that the public latches onto and freaks out about. But “The Trial” is not insufferable. It’s cute and funny, and a little bit cheesy. But that’s where Jim Gaffigan’s strength lies as a sitcom lead. He has the ability to take these subjects — the concept of the sitcom dad, faith — and reframes them in a way that doesn’t feel rehashed or even expected. Other sitcoms have dealt with an overly “PC” — to use a loaded term — culture, but few end with the white male protagonist saying, yeah, he did something dumb, but he’s learning and isn’t that great? The first season of The Jim Gaffigan Show largely followed this pattern as well, and the first two episode of the second point to a similar direction. That’s certainly a good thing for one of the most delightful surprises of last year’s TV season.

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To be sure, some concepts are remixed better than others. “The Trial” works in how it juxtaposes the surreal, dream-like aspects that Gaffigan and celebrity cameos with real life concepts. “The Calling,” the premiere episode of the second, has its moments but doesn’t stick its landing quite as well “The Trial.” But its inciting character is another example of how the show has been able to subvert traditional sitcom tropes. Tongayi Chirisa’s Father Nicholas could have been a cringe-inducing character, the only regular person of color in the cast and a man of god, no less. But instead of being an accented rube, Father Nicholas’ peccadilloes are more in Jim’s mind than they are apart of the character himself, a former soccer star and Benetton model. Jim ascribes this notion of obligation onto Father Nicholas, but he still pays attention to him and respects him. It’s one of the ways that Gaffigan’s inclusion of his religion and beliefs into the fabric of his own show — and stand up for that matter — feels fresh and not off-putting to the non-religious (such as your fearless recapper) because it’s more of an aspect of his life than some overarching theme. Faith is a part of him, it is not his entire being.

Jeannie invites Father Nicholas to dinner (“Jim, us having him for dinner is the least we can do.” “Actually us not having him for dinner is the least we can do.”), leading to Jim to wonder what his calling is in life. After much thought, and an assist from Jerry Seinfeld, Gaffigan decides his calling is comedy (even if it’s not really). One of the best aspects of The Jim Gaffigan Show is often Ashley Williams’ Jeannie, and while the first two episodes don’t give her a whole lot to do, the first season set a precedent for allowing Jeannie to be just as funny as it allows Jim to be. She’s right not because she’s a nag, like other sitcom wives, but because she’s right. At one point, Jeannie says to Jim in a breathy voice, reiterating the episode’s theme, “Everyone has a calling. You just have to listen for it.” Jim instantly replies “Don’t be weird.” It’s this great little interplay but it also take the self-seriousness that religion and faith can bring. Religion is just a part of Jim’s life, it doesn’t define it.

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This has been explored before on The Jim Gaffigan Show, namely in the excellent “The Bible Story,” the best episode from the first season in which the image of Jim holding a Bible goes viral and Jim deals with the benefits and drawbacks of being labeled a “religious comic.” There were shades of “The Bible Story” in “The Trial,” and not just because most of the episode took place in Jim’s dream state, something that both of the first two entries of the season relied on. Instead, both “The Trial” and “The Bible Story” looked at Gaffigan’s fame, and how thoughtless acts — holding a bible, sending “a dumb ignorant stupid white guy” tweet — affected how the rest of the world viewed him.

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The Jim Gaffigan Show is a family sitcom, so often dealing with Gaffigan’s role as both a parent and a husband, but “The Bible Story” and the “The Trial” go beyond that scope, looking at something that few other sitcoms can tread if only because the show is a reflection of Gaffigan’s real life, and not some made up fantasy where he works a boring job and lives in the ‘burbs and drives a minivan.

With Judge Judy … Gold presiding, a host of celebrities weigh in on Jim’s guilt or innocence. Rarely has Nickleback been used so well in a gag. The much-reviled band are jailed with the likes of Gilbert Gottfried and Carrot Top in the Court of Public Opinion, and Gaffigan is put on trial, with an excellent Zachary Quinto as prosecutor (“Jim Gaffigan is disrespectful to his wife and his 800 children”). The conceit works to explore how this afterthought of a tweet became a shitstorm for Gaffigan (something that the opening title card and the epilogue make clear actually happened). But the trial gambit wouldn’t work without the conclusion. No one wins and no one loses, no one is proven wrong. The message is that yeah, he’s in position of privilege (the Mad Men monologue was particularly brilliant), but we all make mistakes and it’s important to understand that he’s learning from that mistake. While he’s being scrutinized, he makes sure not to place the blame on anyone else, while still poking fun at the angry mobs who came after him, a guy who has made an entire career around being inoffensive.

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The Jim Gaffigan Show’s structure is one that makes it hard to push the envelope. The family sitcom has tenants that must be upheld, and at the heart of the show is Gaffigan’s humor, which will always remain inoffensive. But the beginning of the second season, much like the first already did, demonstrates that the show has the ability to move beyond structure, even if it just a little bit.

Stay observations

  • Okay, what other sitcom pulls off a cameo with Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York (he was the barkeep in “The Calling”)?
  • “You’re being tried in the court of public opinion. Did you shoot a lion? Drunk in public? Did you lick a donut and put it back?” “No! I would never put it back.”
  • “Extra! Extra! Ricky Gervais says Miley Cyrus has a dad bod.”

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