How bad are this season’s new sitcoms? How good are they? Tuesday night, Fox does the service of answering both questions within one convenient programming block. At 8 p.m. ET, Dads is the new season at its worst: dated, cheaply provocative, and laboriously unfunny. At 8:30, Brooklyn Nine-Nine is easily the fall’s strongest comedy pilot, clever, appealing, feeling thought-through and lived in after only a half-hour.
First Dads, which is not only bad but already famous for being bad. Its pilot–which includes numerous racial-sexual jokes at the expense of Asians–was pilloried after Fox previewed it for critics, to the extent that Fox actually ran ads suggesting that, if the critics hate it so much, it must be good. I would not blame you for feeling you need to see the show just to see what the fuss is.
You don’t need to. One of several sitcoms about parent-family relationships this fall (Mom, The Goldbergs, and The Michael J. Fox Show to take just a very few), Dads is about two pals and business partners in a videogame company, Eli (Seth Green) and Warner (Giovanni Ribisi), who somehow at the same time have their lives upset when their codgery fathers David (Peter Riegert) and Crawford (Martin Mull) move in with them.
Dads comes from Seth MacFarlane (Family Guy), whose career is marked by having the ambition of making Norman Lear social comedy for a new generation, but without complicating or updating it in any way. So Dads boils down to: old people are funny because they say the kinds of things bigoted old people would have said in a sitcom in 1973. Let’s take just one Dads joke, from the (actually less offensive) second episode. Crawford, chasing a pipe-dream business selling penguin meat, offers Eli a sandwich. “I’m Jewish,” Eli says as an excuse to pass. “It’s free!” Crawford says.
Is the joke anti-Semitic? Speaking only as one Jewish man, I say: eh. I can see the argument that the real joke here is Crawford’s cluelessness. The studio audience may be laughing at that, or they may be agreeing with their stereotype that Jews are cheap. I don’t know; I’m not their rabbi. But you don’t need to read the minds and hearts of Dads or its studio audience to know the big problem here: the joke is just incredibly stale and weak.
Anyway, the list of people who should be offended by Dads is not limited to any one ethnic group. There are also conservatives, whom the show casually associates with being racist. There are old people, whom the show paints as both bigoted and clueless. There are the women characters, who so far are objects or shrews. There are Green, Mull, Ribisi, and Riegert, all of whom are better than this. And above all, there’s the audience, who has to endure the ancient someone-makes-hash-brownies-and-wackiness-ensues plot by only the second episode. There’s plenty of outrage to go around, but the biggest is that Dads is too much of a retread to deserve the effort of getting outraged over.
But that’s why they make TV remotes and DVRs, because Brooklyn Nine-Nine, airing immediately after Dads, is one of the few new fall shows I would set a season pass for after seeing the pilot. It does have one thing in common with Dads: it too is a throwback to the 1970s–here, the gritty, eccentric workplace sitcom like Taxi or, especially, Barney Miller–with Andy Samberg and Andre Braugher fighting crime and workplace battles in New York City‘s largest borough.
There’s the expected amount of exposition in Brooklyn’s pilot: Ray Holt (Braugher) is a grizzled veteran brought in to shape up the 99th precinct, especially Jake Peralta (Samberg), a sharp detective but an egotistical pain in the ass. Peralta’s a bit of a generic smartass in the early going, but pairing the goofball Samberg with the human gravitas generator Braugher–who showed his own comic chops in Men of a Certain Age–turns out to be comedic brilliance. And they’re backed by a top-notch ensemble: Melissa Fumero, as an ambitious detective and Jake’s main rival; Joe Lo Truglio as the departmental sad sack (who pines after an intimidating colleague played by Stephanie Beatriz); Terry Crews as a skittish new father of twins; and Chelsea Peretti as the busybody precinct office manager.
The getting-to-know-yous aside, Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s pilot feels as if the show as already been on for weeks, and I mean that in the best possible way. It knows its characters, their voices, and the dynamics between them. As in co-creator Michael Schur’s Parks and Recreation (which started weaker) you have the sense that you could pair any two characters in the ensemble and get a distinctive, funny storyline. The pilot isn’t the most hilarious I’ve ever seen, but it’s funny enough, it’s appealing, and the show knows itself, which is much more important in the long run.
The trickiest thing for Brooklyn Nine-Nine will be hitting the right tone, keeping the laughs rolling while showing that its characters’ jobs do matter. (The first case they pull, after all, is a murder.) The pilot manages that well, getting its heft not from the mystery but from the gradually revealed backstory that explains why Capt. Holt is so gung-ho to make his mark in the 99th.
If Barney Miller was a top 20 show in 1977–year of the Summer of Sam–then I’m guessing Schur, who makes Parks hilarious without undercutting its emotional or civic stakes, can strike the same balance with his co-creator Dan Goor. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is not a dark comedy, but shows promise of being a believable one, a possible successor to The Office where the characters are pounding pavement instead of pushing paper. And it’s a good corrective to its predecessor Dads, which is simply a crime against comedy.