The best and the worst new sitcoms showing now
With the fall TV season a month old, and nothing canceled yet (although you might want to get to Rel sooner rather than later), here's a roundup of the new comedies, in rough order from best to worst. You can catch up with them on Hulu (for the ABC, Fox and NBC shows) and CBS All Access.
The Kids Are Alright (ABC, Tuesday): This knockoff of The Wonder Years and The Goldbergs, set in Southern California in the early 1970s and narrated by the middle son in a large, working-class Irish Catholic family, takes first place more for its skill in the compulsory figures than for its free-skating artistry. It delivers packaged sentimentality with a polish that helps make up for its predictability, and it has the great advantage of starring Michael Cudlitz and Mary McCormack as the parents. The character of the mother, imbued with a compassionate scorn by McCormack, is a bit of a gloss on Wendi McLendon-Covey's mom in The Goldbergs. But Cudlitz's Mike Cleary, a machinist with a drill-sergeant's edge fighting to keep his family in the lower middle class, isn't the usual hapless domestic-sitcom dad.
I Feel Bad (NBC, Thursday): Created by Aseem Batra (Scrubs), this fast-paced, wisecracking show plays on standard Gen-X anxieties about substandard parenting as well as stereotypes about meddling and hypercritical Indian grandparents. Madhur Jaffrey, in her first regular role on American TV, is a lively presence as the tiger grandmother; Sarayu Blue of No Tomorrow stars as her daughter, Emet, the overwhelmed working mom who fears turning into her own mother. The family squabbles are tired, but there's some freshness in the scenes at Emet's workplace, a video-game company where she supervises and tries to shed some enlightenment on a geek chorus of clueless young men.
Rel (Fox, Sunday): There's not a lot to choose among the remaining five entries on the list. This sad-divorced-dad comedy starring Lil Rel Howery of The Carmichael Show and Insecure (Jerrod Carmichael is an executive producer) scores points for being less uptight than the other shows -- its jokes may be broad and occasionally borderline tasteless, but it can generate some raucous, from-the-gut laughter. While playing a sensitive guy who's trying to get his manhood back after being abandoned by his wife (who cheated on him with his barber), Howery also indulges his inner Tyler Perry, donning wigs and costumes to play over-the-top characters like the old guy who hangs out at the video arcade.
Happy Together (CBS, Monday): In the season's most artificial situation, Damon Wayans Jr. and Amber Stevens West play a boring suburban couple -- she designs restaurants, he's an accountant -- whose lives are upended when one of his celebrity clients (Felix Mallard) decides to move in with them. It's a Fresh Prince (or Mork and Mindy) premise, except that the humor is at the expense of the hosts and their pathetic attempts to look cool for the glamorous alien -- as if they were suddenly living inside an Instagram feed and constantly needing to post. It's not a bad idea -- it's loosely based on a stint the pop star Harry Styles spent living with the show's executive producer, Ben Winston -- but the writing tends toward the bland and sentimental. West shows the same knack for levelheaded exasperation that she exhibited in Ghosted, but all the best moments belong to Stephnie Weir as her character's semi-hysterical mother.
The Neighborhood (CBS, Monday): It's The Jeffersons in reverse: Max Greenfield of New Girl and Beth Behrs of 2 Broke Girls play a white couple who move from the Midwest to a black neighborhood in Los Angeles, where their next-door neighbor is a grouchy, narrow-minded heir to Archie Bunker and George Jefferson played by Cedric "The" Entertainer. The pilot contained a reasonably interesting idea -- Cedric's character mistrusted the Pollyannaish newcomers because he felt they had no reason to befriend him other than his skin color -- but the show is primarily invested in selling the more sentimental notion that overcoming racism is simply a question of individual goodwill. And since no one can do anything to suggest they might actually harbor some racist feelings (through four episodes anyway), we're left with cliches about henpecked husbands and lazy sons.
Single Parents (ABC, Wednesday): Some talented performers, including Leighton Meester and Brad Garrett, are wasted in this convoluted, unfunny show about a wacky group who bond over the difficulties of single parenting. Taran Killam plays the naive newcomer to the school their children all attend; Marlow Barkley, as his daughter, and the other child actors steal every scene they're in.
The Cool Kids (Fox, Friday): Vicki Lawrence doesn't have much to do but roll her eyes in this surprisingly flat show created by Charlie Day of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Paul Fruchbom. She plays the new member of a retirement-home posse that also includes David Alan Grier, Martin Mull and, thankfully, Leslie Jordan, who's just as funny here in a full-time role as he was as a part-timer on Will & Grace.