This TV season, we’ve got so many writers who’ve seen these pilots that we thought getting two takes on each show would be helpful to you. The first review is the “official” TV Club review, and the grade applies to it. But we’ve also found another reviewer to offer their own take on the program. Today, Brandon Nowalk, who’ll be covering the show week to week, and Steve Heisler talk about Unsupervised.
Brandon: As I’m reminded every time I sample Two And A Half Men, humor is excruciatingly subjective. Which isn’t my way of saying Unsupervised isn’t funny so much as a gentle caveat. I didn’t find much to laugh at in tonight’s première—though the laughs grow as the series progresses—but that’s just one person’s emotional reaction. The première has a scrappy charm, and it’s not that it’s trying and failing to score laughs. It’s more invested in building its world. It’s not a setup, punchline, smash cut, pop-culture reference kind of sitcom. Unsupervised is a character comedy that’s still establishing its universe.
Our 15-year-old heroes are Joel (a hyperactive, in-the-moment David Hornsby with a skull T-shirt and a blonde buzz cut) and Gary (a surprisingly responsible Justin Long with a martial-arts T-shirt and a frizzy, brown fro), and like much of Unsupervised, their plucky determination recalls MTV’s—nay, David Gordon Green’s—Good Vibes. The title refers to absentee role models, but growing up on their own hasn’t made the protagonists irritating cynics. With nothing to rebel against, it may well have forestalled their adolescent rebellion, so they ride inertia into high school the same polite, obedient beacons of school spirit they were as kids. Only now they want to start getting girls, and if that means they need to start smoking or drinking, they’re not opposed (but not especially eager, either). Their female friend Megan (Kristen Bell) is the extreme. When Joel and Gary ask why she’d hang out with her mom, she responds, “Um, because she’s my best friend!” She’s not enthusiastic like Nasim Pedrad’s Saturday Night Live character Bedelia; it’s clear from Bell’s performance that she’s just so anxious about all the stuff society tells kids to be anxious about (parties, beer, sex) that she clings to her mother and wants to start a chastity club. When her mom, who gets the entrance line of the night, suggests she go to a party at Gary’s house, she says, “Oh that’s a great idea, Mom. Why don’t I just go to a crackhouse and get raped? Mother of the Year, everyone.” Their other friend Darius (Romany Malco) is mostly concerned with getting in with the cool kids, who naturally don’t notice him. Unsupervised doesn’t have a firm handle on its weirder characters yet, but the main foursome are very well drawn.
Speaking of which, the animation is nicely detailed. It’s not as caricatured as Matt Groening or Seth MacFarlane, livelier than Mike Judge, or dirtier than Adam Reed (insert punchline here). It opens in a dream sequence—and only Unsupervised would have a fantasy take place on dirty cement in front of a graffiti-strewn brick wall—and later you realize how much brighter and more colorful that was than reality. In the real world, the buildings are dilapidated and the constantly overcast sky suggests the series is set somewhere inside Veena Sud’s head, so the colors are always muted. The universe of Unsupervised is encapsulated in an establishing shot of the school, just as dreary as Joel and Gary’s neighborhood, all discolored brick, litter-strewn pavement, misshapen gray-green foliage, and darkening clouds. It’s a dirty mess, but Joel and Gary don’t know what they’re missing.
It’s because of that optimistic spirit that Unsupervised revels in trash like Charlie Kelly, and no wonder, because it’s created by three of the writers for It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia: David Hornsby, Rob Rossell, and Scott Marder. When the gang goes to a drainage ditch (referred to as their “lake”) to take an after-school swim in the mud next week, it’s like visualizing Charlie and Frank foraging in docks or sewers or dumpsters. Because the characters are all growing—which is leading them closer to sex—they wear their biological signs of adolescence like badges of honor, proudly discussing their sprouting new body hair and sweating through T-shirts and getting their periods. In isolation it might make you wrinkle your nose but after a while it’s just another funny quirk.
The plot of the première sees the boys try to abandon their childhood behaviors in order to get girls, which brings about the expected morals wrapped up in unexpected (i.e. gross) packages, and that’s the model for the first three episodes. The kids struggle to achieve a better life and likely fail but learn something in the process, although there is some measure of success tonight. For a show about kids pursuing sex, it’s still very innocent and cute (the boys throw “frickin’” around like they just learned the word), and the whole thing wraps up with a twist on the sleeping bag scene in Superbad.
But it’s that universe outside of the gang where things get iffy. It all basically leads back to the positive coming-of-age morals that define the central narrative (tonight’s: Be yourself) but along the way things can spin out of control, and not every bit works. It’s striking to see a neighborhood full of single parents, absentee parents, and immigrants, all of whom are working class, and even more striking to see that Unsupervised takes its milieu seriously. But Gary’s next-door neighbor is Sid (Andre Sogliuzzo), an Australian superhero-scientist, for lack of a better term, and across the street is Fred Armisen’s Panamanian, frustrated single dad, and somewhere in the nethers is fifth-wheel Russ (Rossell) who has genuine psychological problems and is grosser than everything else on the show combined. It’s what’s on the inside that counts, but boy, is puberty doing him no favors.
That said, Sid’s backstory gives us an inspired montage where he Jane Goodalls—and then some—with some kangaroos, so maybe a little weird is okay, as long as it’s relevant to the narrative. And shows like this don’t often come out of the box fully formed, so maybe it takes some experimentation to figure itself out. It might be light on the laughs right now, but it’s just getting started.
Steve: I’ve seen two episodes of Unsupervised so far, and I’m struggling to come up with a line that I’d think of as being a very Unsupervised-style joke. The show hasn’t yet figured out what’s interesting or special about its world, and sure as hell hasn’t figured out how to write towards that. Mostly the problem is that very few extraordinary things happen. Joel and Gary are extremely cool with everything that orbits their little world. So relaxed, in fact, that there’s barely any tension or conflict in episodes. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but when you have a show like Unsupervised—an ensemble comedy where people simply hang out with one another—it makes the stretches of barely comically heightened action feel even longer. Normally I’d be much more optimistic given the creative team and FX’s track record; but considering this is an animated show with a much longer lead time than most sitcoms, my fear is that it’ll continue for the entire first season, and by then it’ll be too late.