Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Single Parents writers juggled almost a dozen main characters while keeping the jokes flying

Leighton Meester and Taran Killam on Single Parents
Leighton Meester and Taran Killam on Single Parents
Photo: ABC/Gilles Mingasson
Emmy ThisEmmy nominations are announced July 28. This year, we thought we’d highlight some of our favorite elements in categories that don’t get lots of attention in your typical TV reviews, in hopes of spurring the Academy to consider our favorites below the line

Network comedy writers get no respect these days. In fact, only two network comedies have been nominated for an Outstanding Writing Emmy since 2013, Last Man On Earth in 2015 and The Good Place in 2019. It makes sense on a certain level: Streaming and premium cable platforms provide an escape from commercial breaks, regimented time constraints, and that pesky FCC. They’re the bad boys breaking all the rules. Still, it can be even more impressive to write a compelling comedy within all the restraints of network broadcasting standards. Making an argument for the safe and predictable isn’t sexy or cool, but it’s exactly what Single Parents’ Will Cooper (Taran Killam) would do—only with some sort of goofy voice and inside joke that fans would quote days later.

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It’s that kind of off-kilter choice that makes Single Parents worth the watch. Starring Killam, Leighton Meester, Brad Garrett, Kimrie Lewis, and Jake Choi, the ABC sitcom about five single parents banding together to raise their six kids has always been a little different. Refusing to relegate the children to glorified props, creators Elizabeth Meriwether and J.J. Philbin (who previously worked together on New Girl) integrated the grade-school-aged castmembers into the ensemble, giving each of them full personalities and storylines. In the hands of lesser writers, juggling five adults, five “second-graders,” and a toddler would result in a muddled mess of caricatures and surface-level laughs, but Single Parents has no problem keeping the plates spinning and wordplay flying at Veep-level speeds.

That impressive balancing act is on full display in season two’s Valentine’s Day episode. Written by co-producer Kyle Mack, “Chez Second Grade” sees Will recruit Angie (Meester) and Miggy (Choi) to help the second-grade class run a restaurant out of their school cafeteria as a fundraiser (which ends up being for a wine fridge in the teachers’ lounge). Newly dating Douglas (Garrett) and Poppy (Lewis) struggle to get their reservation honored by Poppy’s tip-seeking son, Rory (Devin Trey Campbell). As maître d’, Rory has turned the entire enterprise into an up-charge factory with Will’s daughter, Sophie (Marlow Barkley), playing violin tableside; Angie’s son, Graham (Tyler Wladis), playing the therapeutic bartender; and Douglas’ twins, Amy and Emma (Ella and Mia Allen), working the kitchen.

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Just putting all these characters into their roles for the evening could have taken the full 22 minutes, but the episode manages to squeeze in some major character developments, a cavalcade of guest stars, and plenty of rapid-fire repartee to boot. A lot of the episode’s success can be credited to Mack, who cut his teeth writing on the similarly complex Life In Pieces, but he was set up for success by the detailed and outlandish world-building that Meriwether, Philbin, and co. began in season one. When Angie uses the PTA credit card to buy a few personal items while getting supplies for the restaurant, the two-line joke lands with added weight because longtime fans already know she’s a bit of a klepto. When a fire breaks out in the background, we know the independent twins have got it handled. And when Douglas is told that “the coats have disappeared,” we already recognize the odd coat-check girl as the kids’ classmate Louisa (Ivy Schur, Philbin’s daughter with husband Mike Schur).

This may sound like a lot to follow, but Single Parents fans were regularly rewarded for keeping track of inside jokes that called back lines even a season later. Sadly, that may have made the sophomore sitcom too difficult for casual viewers to keep up with, as ABC opted not to renew the comedy for a third season. That makes this year’s Emmys the last chance to honor Single Parents’ whip-smart writing. (Unless some streaming platform is looking for a worthwhile pickup? Please?) Seinfeld was famously a show about nothing, and there’s a lot to be said for finding comedy in simplicity. The frenetic Single Parents is not that, but it’s great comedy just the same.

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