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The Unicorn pilot is indeed a rarity, because it's actually good

Walton Goggins
Photo: Darren Michaels (CBS)
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“Walton Goggins is a DILF” could be the logline for The Unicorn, a new sitcom from Living Biblically (yikes) and Trial & Error (excellent) alums Bill Martin and Mike Schiff. At least, that’s how some critics (myself included) referred to it upon seeing the first trailer, then at the show’s panel during the TCA press back in August (though obviously not to Goggins’ face—we’re professionals, after all). And it certainly plays that way in the pilot—for about five minutes. With each new character and scene, though, The Unicorn begins to take its true form, which is both more and less conventional than you’d expect from a series whose premise can be boiled down to, I’ll say again, “Walton Goggins is a DILF.”

Goggins, who was recently seen as a dancin’-and-singin’ preacher on The Righteous Gemstones and a dastardly Southern dandy on Vice Principals, stars as Wade Felton, a widower with two daughters, a gaggle of good-hearted friends, and, when the episode begins, a freezer full of sympathy casseroles and lasagnas. The pilot is really an expeditious thing, touching on the recent tragedy (Wade’s wife Jill passed away after a long illness) while introducing the family and their support network. Wade’s daughters, Grace (Ruby Jay) and Natalie (Makenzie Moss), are well-adjusted, which we learn is a testament to both parents. But family friends Delia (Michaela Watkins, hooray!) and Forrest (Rob Corddry) see all the frozen meals, lax rules, and messy house as a sign that the Feltons aren’t doing so well. They’re right, of course, a fact that Wade finally admits once he’s down to his last frozen meal.

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The Unicorn pilot has a few subtle but potent touches, like an empty freezer that marks the passage of time and Wade’s rapidly dwindling denial about the fact that he does need to move on with his life. The writing is smarter than you might expect from the first outing for a network sitcom (if you don’t believe me, check out virtually any other half-hour pilot that aired this week); “This is the Disney Channel version of Grey Gardens” would be funny even without Watkins’ reliably sharp delivery. Overall, the pilot is a pleasant surprise, despite having a pretty stock story—once Wade accepts that he has to get back into the dating pool, there’s the (now) requisite scene of him filling out his online profile (for a site called Mashnote) with some help from his pals. When he’s flooded with responses from some very eligible women, his married couple friends—Delia and Forrest, and Ben (Omar Benson Miller), and Michelle (Maya Lynne Robinson)—pronounce him a “unicorn,” who in the show’s world is a man with a demonstrable history of building healthy relationships. He’s single by tragic circumstance and not some objectionable quality; he’s gainfully employed; and he’s a great dad.

This, his friends tell him, makes him a babe magnet (also the fact that he is played by Walton Goggins). And here’s the fork in the road for The Unicorn, the moment when it could have gone down a well-trod path and had a cash-register sound or some such go off in Wade’s head as he realized the dating world was his oyster. Here’s where we’d see a parade of companions of varying suitability for the rest of the season, while Wade fist-bumped his male friends and was reminded to be sensitive by his female friends. Maybe Grace would have some shitty boyfriend and turn around and tell Wade that she learned it from watching him objectify women. Oh, Wade would learn a lesson here and there, but he’d also have fun taking advantage of the situation (within respectable, network sitcom limits, of course).

Makenzie Moss and Ruby Jay
Photo: Darren Michaels (CBS)
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Goggins would probably have had fun with that; no one does “wicked with a touch of vulnerability” the way he does. But thankfully, The Unicorn doesn’t take the easy way out; Wade is as uncomfortable with the idea of sympathy dates and sympathy sex as he is being defined by the great loss in his life. He can’t really start a new relationship if he’s always viewed in the context of a previous one. So, he decides to switch his status to “single” to level the playing field a bit. Of course, on his very first date with Danielle (Bianca Kajlich), he has to reveal his widower status because the tan line from his wedding ring makes her think he’s an adulterous creep. The confusion and best-laid plans being laid to waste are standard sitcom stuff, but there’s a moment of genuine connection during Wade and Danielle’s brief date. He admits, “I don’t really know who I am anymore,” which turns out to be the exact right thing to say to Danielle, who isn’t eager to be defined by her romantic history or divorce either. Just when it looks like they’re going to hook up, Wade cuts the night short, but not before a few more sparks fly between him and Danielle.

Their first meeting is reminiscent of early How I Met Your Mother, when we weren’t sure what would come of Ted and Robin’s chemistry. It’s sweet and charming and awkward, like many of the best dates, which is important for a show that’s built around a single dad who is actively dating, and not just falling ass-backward into a setup. Wade’s characterization is also key—he’s a little clueless about teenage girls, but he’s not the hapless dad of, oh, just about every other sitcom. In just 22 minutes, we get a good sense of the kind of person he is: devoted, hardworking, a little old-fashioned, and capable of rocking a (half) French tuck. Though his friends spend much of the episode telling Wade (and the audience) what his appeal is, it’s when he’s quietly doing his thing, like taking his daughters out for waffles, that we actually see it.

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Now, just how well this concept holds up for a season, let alone seasons, is anyone’s guess. I also heard The Unicorn described as “Full House, but it’s just Danny Tanner,” which stopped my heart a little. But, based just on this first half-hour, The Unicorn feels more in the vein of something like Single Parents, which has a similar network of friends and families helping each other. Everyone in the cast is good to great, especially Watkins as a caring but ambitious doctor; the way she initiates an Our Bodies, Our Selves chat with an embarrassed Grace in full view of the boy she was caught making out with wouldn’t have been out of place on the late, great Casual. Maybe what we have here isn’t a unicorn but a Trojan horse for a new sort of hangout comedy, the kind that takes into account families that don’t fit into the nuclear mold (not to mention, the divorce rate).

Stray observations

  • The pilot was written by Bill Martin and Mike Schiff, and directed by John Hamburg.
  • Martin and Schiff were also behind Fam and Living Biblically, so I hope you can understand some of my skepticism. But a good pilot is a good pilot.
  • Danielle might not be endgame for The Unicorn, but she’s definitely someone we’ll see again.
  • “You’re factory fresh.” “Yeah, certified pre-owned.” “Why do you have to put your own spin on everything?” The interplay between Watkins and Corddry is another great reason to watch.
  • “Brownies for dinner? I’m 12 and even I know that’s bad.” That’s the most rote “precocious sitcom kid” line in the entire pilot, which gives me hope.
  • ETA: If it lasts long enough, we’ll drop back in on the The Unicorn at midseason and finale time.
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