All of my favorite network comedies die early deaths. So either I have bad taste in comedy, or the rest of the television-viewing masses do. It’s my face in the top left corner of this article, so I’m going to say it’s the latter.
R.I.P. Ben and Kate, the charming brother-sister sitcom that proved Dakota Johnson had superstar talent before she began flogging the body of a naked Adonis in mommy porn come to celluloid life. Trophy Wife, I mourn you and your crazy-talented ensemble. Why didn’t ABC air you after Modern Family and give you the chance you deserved? We’ll never know. Happy Endings, I’m sad that your title is now a pun given your fate, and Pushing Daisies, your name should never have been your destiny.
And so it is with the realization that this TV writer has apparently been moonlighting as an industry black widow—if he likes it, it will die—that we are ever so cautiously singing the praises of Life in Pieces, which is possibly the best comedy CBS has had on its lineup in a decade and has the potential to be the best comedy of the year, too.
Plus, if it lives up to that potential it could also live up to the moniker that critics are all so dying to give it, but resisting until the first season plays out: The Next Modern Family.
The new comedy, which premieres Monday night, features a cast that is so stacked it’s practically owed that distinction: Dianne Wiest, James Brolin, Colin Hanks, The Newsroom’s Thomas Sadoski, and Breaking Bad’s Betsy Brandt, reaping the rewards of much better material than she was given in the doomed Michael J. Fox Show to prove her full comedic potential.
There’s also a possible revelation in the works, à la Ty Burrell or Sofia Vegara in the Modern Family premiere. She’s Zoe Lister Jones and she made me laugh out loud more than any performer in any of this fall’s comedy pilots, working physical comedy wonders with a frozen rubber glove (it’s as bonkers as it sounds).
Life in Pieces, at its core, is basically a deconstruction of the now-iconic Modern Family pilot. (Few comedy pilots are ever that strong.) The first episode doesn’t earn the indelible status that our introduction to the Dunphy-Pritchett clan has, but its conceit is a smart one.
Eric Stonestreet presenting his adopted daughter Lion King-style to his extended family revealed that the little vignettes we had seen throughout the preceding Modern Family episode all depicted characters from the same extended family. Life in Pieces has been giving that away in the commercials.
The show wants you to know before you even start watching that the four smaller vignettes are actually part of the greater life story of a connected family, in this case the Shorts. The surprise of it all is taken away, but none of the gratification is missing when the family finally does get together.
The “milestones” in question are all purposefully relatable: a first date, the birth of a first child, sending your oldest child to college, and a funeral (albeit a fake one). In fact, the hallmark of the show is that it sets up family comedy situations that have already been done on TV so often that they’re now tired clichés. That the show finds new humor and life in these done-to-death scenarios is its biggest strength.
Take the “First Date” scene that begins the episode. Matt Short (Sadoski) is on a first date with his co-worker Colleen (Angelique Cabral), who “invites him up” for some presumed hanky panky. The hijinx actually start out quite cleverly. When they get in the house, there’s already a man in the living room. It’s Chad, Colleen’s ex-fiancé, played by Jordan Peele.
It turns out that Colleen and Chad own the house together and neither can afford to buy the other out. Matt and Colleen try to heat things up anyway, but are stalled when they can’t ignore Chad’s weeping in the other room. So they go to Matt’s house instead where—surprise! (or not)—Matt’s parents interrupt them. Yep, the classic “grown man lives with his parents and gets his sexy time thwarted” scenario.
It’s livened, however, by the fact that Matt’s parents are played by Dianne Wiest and James Brolin. Wiest takes the matriarch sitcom stock character that peaked with Doris Roberts in Everybody Loves Raymond and, in her way, reinvents it. Her Joan Short isn’t the overbearing, shrill Frankenstein whose presence everyone in the family loathes. Instead, she’s flighty and daffy and classy and warm. Wiest makes comedic mountains out of broadly written mole hills, and Brolin just seems giddy to climb them with her.
Each vignette is cursed a little bit by seeming overly familiar, but they’re so short that a pointed gag or bit in each saves them. In “The Delivery,” Hanks’s Greg is a bumbling new dad doing bumbling new dad things that all bumbling sitcom dads have done before. He drives ridiculously slowly home from the hospital, he can’t figure out how to assemble the baby chair, he’s shocked to learn that it’s not safe for his wife to have sex with him for six weeks.
But Zoe Lister Jones nails the endearing kookiness of his wife, leading to the biggest laugh lines of the episode. “Do not, no matter what, for any circumstances, for any reason, ever look down there,” the OB/GYN warns after she gives birth. Cut to the next scene and cue the shriek: “When someone hands you a box and says there’s something crazy inside but you’re not allowed to look at it, of course you’re going to look at it. I looked inside my box.”
“The College Tour” is plagued by the ho-hum “dad awkwardly telling his teenage son about his own college sexual escapades” joke, but a running bit in which Brandt aggressively insists her son take a sandwich before going on his tour even though he’s not hungry is recognizable to moms and their mortified children everywhere. “I just want you to have it!”
The to-this-point separated splinters of the greater Short clan come together for “The Funeral,” which is actually a birthday party for Brolin’s character. The attending-your-own-funeral thing has been done before, too, and has only been not dumb when Tom Sawyer did it. (Not even The Golden Girls could make it work.)
Life in Pieces is certainly not Mark Twain, but actually manages to make this vignette not as insufferable as it should’ve been and gets some strong laughs thanks to the winning performances of the cast.
There are other sitcom tropes throughout the premiere. Overly precocious children? Check! But the mark of good writing is when familiar stories are told in surprising, or at least smart, ways. Doing something others have done before isn’t lazy if you do them well, which, in the pilot at least, Life in Pieces does.
It’s a tall order to maintain such sharpness, which is the biggest cause for concern, but the ultimate simplicity and straightforward narrative ambition of the show is what gives it the most promising shelf life of all this year’s new comedies.
Because the truth is that Life in Pieces has competition in the race for “best” new show. (And has some passionate detractors already.) But it boasts the best potential for sustaining quality, something that will be epically more problematic for its far more high-concept contemporaries.
The Rob Lowe comedy The Grinder, for example is way smarter than you’d expect it to be, as Lowe is perfect as a narcissist charming enough to escape douchebag territory. But is “TV lawyer thinks he can be a real lawyer” a one-joke premise? It’s of similar concern for Grandfathered, which also boasts an incredibly strong pilot—John Stamos finds out he’s a dad and a grandfather on the same day—but might be too high-concept to expect longevity. The Muppets is delightful. But is it a novelty?
There’s no shortage of life’s milestones, however, and all are ready to be laughed at in pieces.