Monday, September 21, 2015

Pilot Review: Life in Pieces

Life in Pieces (Mondays at 8:30 on CBS)

It's so rare with sitcoms that the concept and comedy feel fresh. When it happens, the feeling is electric; think of the first seasons of Modern Family and Glee for a couple of recent examples. The comedy landscape is so well-trod that all it takes is a slight format change, a strong cast, and a little truth to the jokes to make it work. Life in Pieces is the first show in some time to get it all right and elicit that elusive response.

The most unique aspect of CBS's newest comedy is the format. Each episode is told in vignettes, or short stories as the tagline suggests, from the points of view of different family members. John (James Brolin) and Joan (Dianne Wiest) are the heads of the family. They have three kids: Matt (Thomas Sadoski, The Newsroom), who has just started dating co-worker Colleen (Angelique Cabral, Enlisted); Greg (Colin Hanks, Fargo), whose wife Jen (Zoe Lister-Jones, Whitney) has just given birth to their first child; and only daughter Heather (Betsey Brandt, Breaking Bad), who is married to Tim (Dan Bakkedahl, Veep) and is fearing empty nest syndrome now that their eldest child is applying to colleges. It's a large ensemble of parents, kids, and grandchildren (of which there are four, including Greg and Jen's newborn), traveling in and out of each others' lives and stories. It's a format that initially feels cold and distant, like we're moving on from one character just around the point when we'd really get to know them, but then ends up working out well by the time everyone's sharing screen time in the fourth and final vignette. It's a testament to both how well the format can work and to creator Justin Adler's writing that we learn just as much when the characters aren't the primary focus of any short story as when they are. The division of the storyline allows for the characters to develop indirectly in subtle ways, like in how John reacts to Matt's speech at his fake funeral (John wanted everyone to deliver eulogies in front of an empty casket for his 70th birthday, which creates the set-up for the episode's funniest and most emotional moments) or in Joan's tiny ways she shows her kids she cares (by offering Matt and Collen ice cream, for example, rather than privacy on their first date).

With an ensemble this large, it's easy for actors to be lost in the shuffle, but everyone in Life in Pieces makes an impression, even the youngest ones playing Heather and Tim's children (toddler Sophia, played by Giselle Eisenberg, gets a great scene in which she discovers Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and maybe even God are all adult fabrications). Everybody has a moment to shine, and everybody gets at least one really solid joke or visual gag. My favorite of the three vignettes belonged to Hanks and Lister-Jones, from the birthing room to the days following her return home. The comedy rides the line between tasteless and hysterical in these scenes, a kind of comedy not present in the other stories, though the types of jokes run the gamut from slapstick to vagina jokes. Somehow, it almost all works. The dialogue is snappy and never forced, wonderfully acted by the veterans and the newcomers alike. One character, the ex-fiance of Matt's new girlfriend, falls a bit flat and feels like too much of a caricature to fit in with the rest of the cast; sure, everyone's quirky and a little off, but he's way over the top in the pilot's only real misstep.

It will be interesting to see how long Life in Pieces can sustain itself, as it will be burning through four stories at a time per episode, but it's off to an impressive start. The timing is there, the writing is there, the performances are there... it's a really fun, fast-paced half-hour in an otherwise dull landscape of comedies about dysfunctional families.

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