Thursday, March 27, 2014

Pilot Review: Surviving Jack

Surviving Jack (Thursdays at 9:30 on Fox)

We already have The Goldbergs mining the 80s for comedy over on ABC on Tuesday nights, and now we have Surviving Jack doing the same for the early 90s on Fox. The difference between the two, however, is key: Surviving Jack is funny. I don't know if it's because the 90s were "my time," and I just relate better to the humor derived from it, or if Jack is just better at using its time period, or both, but I actually found myself enjoying Fox's latest offering.

Christopher Meloni is back in primetime as Jack, the patriarch of the Dunlevy family. Jack is an oncologist and a former military man who is just slipping into the role of "father" when his wife, Joanne (Rachael Harris, The Hangover), goes back to law school full-time. Now it's up to Jack to be the primary parent to their two teenage kids: awkward freshman Frankie (Connor Buckley) and rebellious Rachel (Hart of Dixie's Claudia Lee). The family structure is fairly standard, though it's nice to see another modern sitcom with a father at the center (Are there others besides Suburgatory?). The show takes place in 1991 and picks up on Frankie's first day of high school, the summer after going through a ten-inch growth spurt. He's predictably uncomfortable in his own skin, made only worse by Jack's now-constant and intimidating presence. The pilot's most successful comedic moments come from Frankie's interactions with his father; Jack is a straight-shooter who doesn't take any crap, which isn't always the kind of parental support Frankie is looking for. When Jack finds out Frankie is becoming sexually interested in women, he responds by putting a box of condoms in his son's lunchbag with a note that reads, "I'm not paying for any babies that don't come out of your mother." When he catches Frankie trying to watch scrambled Cinemax at 3am, he demands his son run a barefoot lap around the block. It's a realistic and often funny dynamic between the two lead characters, but one that still feels honest and caring. The pilot-ending scene where Jack imparts a bit of wisdom to Frankie about ignoring the flack he's gotten for not losing his virginity to the first person he kisses is poignant without losing its humorous heart.

The material mostly comes from the book I Suck at Girls by Justin Halperin, whose other literary offering, Sh*t My Dad Says, was turned into a much less funny sitcom on CBS a few years ago. Surviving Jack has the bite of My Dad's one-off quips (and it's easy to see how a man like Jack could turn into the foul-mouthed character of that book) but picks up its humor in more relatable ways. There's nothing new about focusing on a family in the middle of upheaval, what with the youngest child starting high school and the mother changing careers, but Surviving Jack does it with enough heart and charm that it feels new. The only aspect of the comedy that truly falls flat is in the abundance of period-specific jokes. The soundtrack, just like in The Goldbergs, is like another protagonist, with tunes from Marky Mark and George Michael turning up at inopportune times to elicit yet further laughs from the viewer. Hypercolor t-shirts play a large role in the plot, as does the book Jurassic Park, but these jokes feel arbitrary rather than necessary. Meloni is funny enough on his own, with a deadpan delivery and an uncanny ability to simultaneously be both terrifying and sweet, without having to rely on the nostalgia factor and recognizability of the 90s stuff. Halperin's script, co-written with his S#*! My Dad Says collaborator Patrick Schumacker, often rides the line between insightful-funny and gimmicky. When it's just Meloni and Buckley navigating the murky waters of their complicated father-son relationship, or Meloni and Harris flinging barbs at each other, Surviving Jack is honestly funny. Meloni deftly carries the show on his broad shoulders; in his performance, he does with Jack what all the bad fashion and synthesized music tries to do: he recalls the viewer to another time, a time when our parents were our parents and not our friends. His Jack is the most nostalgic thing about the show. I think we all either had Jack for a father or knew someone who did, that dad who rode the line between really awesome and really strict, but who, at the end of the day, was just trying to figure it all out as much as we were.

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