In recent years, class has been the great unspoken element of TV family comedies.
The genre that gave us the Bundys, the Conners and the Simpsons — all families who were whose neighborhoods lay an unbridgeable distance from great wealth — had moved, in the past decade, onto “Modern Family’s” Pritchetts and “Black-ish’s” Johnsons. These families, the standard-bearers for the family sitcom in the 2010s, had enough concerns to fuel multiseason runs, but money rarely seemed to be one. This left on the table one of the major stories of American family life in an age of increasing precarity, and also created a strange sort of airless feeling. If these folks could afford to do anything, where was the tension?
If nothing else, it’s refreshing to see the sitcom take up social class as a concern once again. The next step is to come up with something worth saying. (Recent series including “Indebted” on NBC and “Broke” on CBS have run up against this problem.) ABC’s “Home Economics” has a canny central idea and a game cast, and though its first two episodes lack a certain surefootedness, there is potential there. The challenge the show faces will be coming up with ways to complicate rather than simply restating its premise.
And that premise is a fairly elegant one. Three siblings who live near one another occupy three particular rungs of the social ladder, with Jimmy Tatro enjoying a blithe, easy sort of wealth, Caitlin McGee struggling to keep her family afloat, and Topher Grace somewhere in the middle. Tatro, of “American Vandal,” brings a sort of benevolent arrogance to the role. His Connor has what his siblings want, and plenty of unpleasant character traits to boot, and yet Tatro’s puppyish energy makes the role spark. McGee, paired with Sasheer Zamata of “Saturday Night Live,” bounces off of him with a not-unwelcome astringent note of resentment. Grace — playing a novelist dependent on his siblings for material — tends towards a sort of cerebral watchfulness that works well.
This dynamic makes up for some shortfalls. The children of these three siblings are not meaningfully distinguished in the first two episodes, and there is similarly not a great deal for Grace’s wife (Karla Souza) to do. The siblings’ parents (Nora Dunn and Phil Reeves) play favorites, preferring Tatro’s character as he has promised to pay for their vacation, and speak insultingly broken Spanish to Souza’s character; it’s an exaggerated venality and cruelty that strains what is elsewhere a pretty grounded show. (Similarly, stabs at edgy humor, as when one child asks another what her dolls’ pronouns are, tend to introduce a bitterness beyond what is the prevailing comic tone.) And the plot detail that Grace fears his writing about his siblings will eventually turn his siblings against him tends to reject development — they presumably will, down the road, find out and snap, but his attempts to conceal his borrowing simply feel like delaying the inevitable.
In all, though, it’s early days for a show with a fair amount on its mind and a good sense of who its three leads are. It’s worth hoping that the show pursues the instinct that led to develop three sharply observed characters, and refines those parts of the show that are not there yet. There are definitely stories “Home Economics” is equipped to tell that hits of the recent past wouldn’t touch; I hope it is able to last long enough to tell them.
“Home Economics” premieres on ABC April 7 at 8:30 p.m. E.T.
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