Appropriate for a comedy about swelling numbers, NBC’s latest venture in the multi-camera arena has a statistical basis: Studies like the one released by the White House’s Council Of Economic Advisers in 2014, which found that 31 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 lived with their parents in 2014—up from 28 percent in 2007. A similar statistic comes up during the first episode of Crowded, recited by dejected astrophysicist Shea (Miranda Cosgrove), who’s making like more and more of her peers—including her actress sister, Stella (Mia Serafino)—and moving in with mom and dad. Complicating this Fuller House equation: With their granddaughters coming home to roost, Alice (Carlease Burke) and Bob (Stacy Keach) put their Florida exodus on hold. If you think no-longer-empty-nesters Martina (Carrie Preston) and Mike Moore (Patrick Warburton) will rejoice at this news, then you’ve probably never seen Patrick Warburton in a sitcom before.
Crowded isn’t as dry as all that statistical data and post-Puddy sarcasm would imply. The show hails from Hot In Cleveland creator Suzanne Martin, and though it’s never as aggressively bawdy as that TV Land series, it does rely on such sitcom tried-and-trues like acid-tongued insults, familial meddling, and clash-of-the-generations conflicts. Thrust back into parenthood after four blissful years on their own, the Moores (get it?) must learn what they did wrong the first time around with Shea and Stella, while fielding unsolicited advice from Bob and Alice about how they’re still screwing up.
The findings might be factual, but the conclusions are predictably anecdotal. As Bob’s logic—delivered with gravel-throated severity by Keach—goes, Mike and Martina shouldn’t have spent so much time supporting Shea’s dream of seeing stars or Stella’s dream of being a star. They were friends first and parents second, which sent their daughters running home at the first sign of trouble. Some elements of Crowded reflect current events, but this part of the show feels like current events as refracted through a poorly sourced Facebook meme.
Putting aside the complementary figures about Shea and Stella not exactly being responsible for the farce of a job market they graduated into: Crowded’s present doesn’t display much evidence of what Keach’s character terms “‘Everything you do is great’ parenting.” That dynamic is often spoken of in the past tense, either in reference to events that occurred years ago, between episodes, or between scenes. And it has to be, because showing that extreme encouragement would eat away at the source of the show’s comic tension. (It can’t be easy to convey that sentiment in Warburton’s deadpan, either.) It’s a strange compromise that weakens the show’s foundations even as it shores up its sense of humor.
As is true of most network sitcoms, Crowded gets better once it makes a little elbow room within the constraints of its premise. The breezy clip of the pilot decelerates in the two additional episodes screened for credits, reaching a pace that gives the jokes more space to land and the characters more room to breathe. Cosgrove benefits the most from these adjustments, which allow her to play Shea more like an intellectual starved for social interaction, and less like a poorly photocopied Big Bang Theory character. Crowded wastes no time in showing off its ensemble-piece stripes, either, whether it’s through explorations of the fraught relationships between Shea and Stella and Mike and Bob, or through one-liner embroidery from Burke and Keach.
It’s an evolution that plays to the character-based strengths of Crowded’s Must See TV predecessors (and their unofficial spawn, like Martin’s prior series): While starting as a story about generic people in a specific situation, it starts finding its voice when the people get more specific and the situations are a little more run-of-the-mill. The show struggles the most to pin Martina down, but Preston powers through it, unleashing the energy she pent up across comic-relief turns on True Blood and The Good Wife. Her new TV husband’s poker face remains a renewable laugh resource more than 20 years after his first Seinfeld guest spot, and in all that time (and in all the variations on David Puddy Patrick Warburton has played since) nobody’s sharper with a wry, one-word retort—except for maybe Stacy Keach, who provides Crowded with ample “like father, like son” fodder.
Crowded boasts a topical inspiration, but the things it does well are old-school: A well-stocked ensemble, performances calibrated to a multi-cam wavelength, one solid zinger every few pages of script. Like Hot In Cleveland, it’s throwback TV, with all the unfussy charms that implies. Some weak conceptual components aside, what it offers is the warm comfort of the familiar. Sort of like moving back home—for better and for worse.