Jim Gaffigan isn’t anyone’s idea of a controversial comedian. His routines revolve around food, family, and food again, and he’s earned a reputation for preparing clean, profanity-free material. He’s the funny dad in the car pool, the co-worker who drops disarming gags ’round the conference table, the everyman whose broad appeal and relatable subject matter are wrapped around keen observations, seemingly spontaneous tangents, and that goofy falsetto he does to vocalize audience reaction. Billions of people have eaten at McDonald’s; Jim Gaffigan spun the experience into nine minutes about regretful decisions, truth in advertising, and the Gregorian calendar’s inextricable ties to the Shamrock Shake. The routine contains no truth bombs—but it doesn’t bomb, either.

And that’s been the line on the first season of TV Land’s The Jim Gaffigan Show, a sleeper sitcom from a network that’s just starting to cut the Big Macs of comedy programming—the multi-camera stars of yesteryear sandwiched together and slathered in bawdy jokes—from its diet. Among its New York-set contemporaries, The Jim Gaffigan Show is less abstract than Louie, less adventurous than Broad City. It’s unfussy, but it’s funny, especially when the fictionalized version of Gaffigan’s wife, Jeannie (Ashley Williams), or her Gaffigan-taunting best friend, Daniel (Michael Ian Black), are in the mix. And on this show, “funny” is pretty much the only aim.

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But “The Bible Story” has grander ambitions. Among the four episodes distributed to TV critics ahead of the series’ debut, the half-hour stood out, a stylistic detour with a topical hook and a levelheaded look at the fog of outrage that’s settled on the borders of comedy circles in recent years. When Jim is photographed holding a Bible of absurd proportions, the episode kicks off a thrillingly paced worst-case-scenario fantasy, one in which the protagonist’s attempt to fix things only results in fresh damage.

The spiral begins innocently enough: Prior to a stand-up gig, Jeannie asks Jim to pick up a gift from their priest, Father Nicholas (Tongayi Chirisa). He agrees to do the favor, but he’s clearly distracted as he heads out the door—he’s got the performance on his mind, as well as his singing daughter, whose rendition of “Itsy Bitsy Spider” steals Jim’s attention (and the camera’s) before he can answer Jeannie. (Remember that song, because this will prove important later.) The Gaffigans’ faith is one of the more intriguing aspects of The Jim Gaffigan Show; their church attendance is as wholesome and white-bread as any part of the comedian’s persona, but it puts these characters in the minority among TV families. In terms of contemporary shows, it’s pretty much the Simpsons and the Gaffigans in the boat of fictional churchgoers who aren’t entirely defined by their religion.

By extension, that puts Jim in a perceived minority among entertainers, as he finds out when he’s photographed with Jeannie’s gift from Father Nicholas: An antique Bible that’s blessed by the Pope and big enough to serve as an end table. His friend Dave (Adam Goldberg) calls Jim “America’s sweetheart” after taking the snapshot, sarcasm that turns sincere in a matter of hours.

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The virality of Jim’s Bible photo starts off feeling like a facile read of online publishing trends: “Entertainers of Faith” is a pretty bland headline by Huffington Post standards, particularly when it’s juxtaposed with the Miley Cyrus feature “Here, There, Everywhere—The Tongue That Simply Won’t Go Away.” But “The Bible Story” is already starting to tip its hat. There’s no use beating around the bush: The episode’s big formal experiment all takes place between the raindrops of “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” a little bit of time-bending that allows the character to mentally run through a “What if?” about taking a Bible to the Gotham Comedy Club. It’s a modest Sliding Doors setup, exploring a single negative outcome—“The Bible Story” is ambitious, but it’s not “Remedial Chaos Theory” ambitious. But it’s still clever enough to start the descent into madness early on, with the HuffPo mention, the comically sized Bible, and Jim’s personal nightmare: Daniel got his own key to the apartment.

By exposing some of its seams, “The Bible Story” makes it easier to swallow what comes next: Invitations to a White House prayer breakfast, advertising offers from a homophobic pizza chain (represented by H. Jon Benjamin, pouring on the stealthily loathsome sleaze), and the stranger who mistakes an expression of Jim’s frustration as a pre-meal prayer. Long before Jim looks us in the eye and remarks “This can’t be happening,” the episode is planting that idea in our mind. The editing is a big help there, accelerating the chaos by further condensing time, and allowing Jim to dream up some momentary wins for himself. Before he meets Benjamin’s character, the scene shifts from daytime in the Gaffigan home to showtime at Gotham, where an unseen crowd goes bananas for Jim’s unseen set. Later, he’s telling Jeannie that he wants to set the record straight; cut to Jim making his case to Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. Things are about to spin out of control, but he still has one hand on the wheel—until the act break, at least.

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It can’t be terribly hard to convince cable-news pundits that they should spend more time on TV, but the sheer volume of talking heads haunting Jim from his bedroom TV speaks to Gaffigan’s wide-ranging popularity. He reaches across the aisle and across the divides separating global telecommunication giants, as “The Bible Story” chases Stewart’s cameo with appearances by Rachel Maddow, Keith Olbermann, Nancy Grace, Glenn Beck, and more. (Nobody from Fox News, though—there are some levels of hell “The Bible Story” dare not subject its protagonist to.) The anchors satirize their own shows and their own networks, running Jim’s story—which as you may recall, began as nothing more than a candid post-show snapshot—through a game of journalistic telephone that ends by painting its subject as an agenda-pushing hypocrite who’s clinging to his life raft of a Bible while openly cheating on Jeannie with Daniel. Nobody reaches out to Jim for a comment, though that’d likely make things worse; instead, they interview his fellow comedians (including Dave), who are quick to turn on Jim. Lizz Winstead calls the five Gaffigan children an affront to women’s rights, before Dave and Judy Gold insinuate that Jim is an anti-Semite.

The pitchforks are drawn, but they’re not literal pitchforks until Jim is driven from the Gotham stage and hunted down in the streets. And it’s important for “The Bible Story” to reach that cartoonish fever pitch, because the cable news montage comes dangerously close to indulging in the type of perspective that’s made every conversation about comedy in the past few years absolutely insufferable. In Jim’s worst case scenario, he’s shamed by people with larger stages than him and shouted down by faceless audience members. He just wants to talk about avocados, but the people aren’t listening. They’re hearing the Jim that exists in the context of a single, blown-out-of-proportion gaffe, like the #CancelColbert crowd and Stephen “Ching-Chong Ding-Dong” Colbert.

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And when the question of who decides what’s being blown out of proportion is raised, the conversation gets harder to navigate. In real-world clashes of identity politics and comedy, the comedy side can be quick to go on the defensive, explaining its intent and attempting to provide context. But context doesn’t matter when emotional offense is taken, and so both sides ram into each other with their chosen weapons for a few minutes, hours, or days. The culture war has no winner; the best possible outcome is that one side gains a little more empathy for the other. And in “The Bible Story,” Jim’s fighting against three other sides: Religious people who believe he’s insulted their beliefs, atheists who think he’s trying to make everyone believe the same thing he believes, and gay people who take his denial of a relationship with Daniel as a repudiation (there’s a word that gets a workout tonight) on the level of the Pizza House bigots.

And so The Jim Gaffigan Show opts to abstain. “The Bible Story” backs Jim into a corner, casting the shadows of his newfound enemies across his face as they snarl and jeer and wave “GOD HATES JIM” signs at him. The confrontation sequence is a great bit of horror-filmmaking-in-miniature, as all of New York suddenly turns against Jim, who manages to stay a few steps ahead of the mob until he’s finally surrounded. Fighting back has gotten him nowhere before, and so the only way out is to give up—until the familiar sound of “Itsy Bitsy Spider” pulls him from his reverie. Back in the Gaffigan living room, our suspicions are confirmed: None of the preceding 20 minutes actually happened. There was no giant Bible, no monster, no thing called “Gaffigan” to be followed.

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“It was all a dream” gets a deservedly bad rap, but I don’t think that bad rap applies here. The ending of “The Bible Story” doesn’t discount anything that came before it—if anything, Jim honors that whacked-out series of events by backing out on the favor, which is just as well because it’s not urgent and Jeannie can just pick the Bible up tomorrow. Jim’s decision is kind of a dick move, but that’s neither here nor there: On a story level, it fits.

It also fits with the personality headlining the show. In last week’s episode, “Superdad,” Jim and Dave argue about the value of edginess in comedy. “Stay safe,” Dave tells his friend as he heads into a subway station. “Oh, who am I kidding? That’s your entire existence.” But “The Bible Story”’s formal riskiness shows that Gaffigan works pretty well outside of his comfort zone, too. And it also provides some insight into why he chooses to stay away from the touchier, more controversial stuff on a regular basis.

Stray observations

  • Hey! Thanks for reading this drop-in review of tonight’s Jim Gaffigan Show, which appeared on the site with no prior warning to you, the A.V. Club reader! As mentioned above, the episode really struck me when I first watched it, and the rest of the show has been such a pleasant summertime treat, I figured it was time to check back in on Jim, Jeannie, and the kids. And depending on how many people read this review, maybe we’ll do Jim Gaffigan reviews on a weekly basis come season two.

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