Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, TV Reviews doesn’t replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.
The Millers is more than the sum of its fart jokes.
To follow early publicity and reviews for CBS’ new sitcom, it’d be easy to imagine the entirety of its running time consists of Margo Martindale making fart noises and the studio audience laughing uproariously at said fart noises. And, to be sure, there are a handful of fart jokes delivered by Martindale throughout the half-hour run of the pilot, none of them particularly funny or clever. But there’s more to The Millers than worrying that Martindale’s promising career of villainous roles on prestige cable dramas has come to an end simply because she’s hooting about how when you’re an old person, the farts sometimes just slip on out.
The Millers is unusual in this pilot season because it’s one of the few shows to see sustained reshooting. The original pilot wasn’t an abomination or anything, but it also wasn’t very good, and it was slightly too mean, with too much of an emphasis on how little anyone in its central family liked each other. Sitcoms about people who are just awful to each other have a rich tradition, but such a thing can often feel unnecessarily claustrophobic in a multi-camera family comedy, where all of the yelling can cut too close to home. (The only show to really pull off that trick was Everybody Loves Raymond, which this show bears more than a few similarities to.) The new pilot hasn’t been softened, but it’s definitely varied the ways the various Millers relate to each other, as opposed to screaming all of the time. It’s very much a patch job on a project that needed more than a quick fix, but the direction it takes is encouraging.
At the show’s center is Will Arnett, in full “straight man” mode as a recent divorcé tentatively beginning his newly single life when his parents, played by Martindale and Beau Bridges, come up to visit from Myrtle Beach. Arnett has been keeping his divorce a secret from them (one of the pilot’s falsest notes, since it exists solely so the secret can come out), but when they find out, it sets off a seismic reaction in Bridges, who’s been unhappily married for over 40 years and now wants his own chance to live out from under his wife’s thumb. Martindale moves in with Arnett. Bridges moves in with Jayma Mays (as Arnett’s sister) and her husband, Nelson Franklin, where he promptly begins figuring out what all of their many remote controls do. As Arnett’s TV station co-worker, JB Smoove pops up to form an instant rapport with Martindale.
It’s far from the most compelling setup, and the pilot itself has numerous problems with tone. The performances from Martindale and Bridges are pitched to the back of the theater and occasionally come across as far too broad for TV. At the same time, Arnett’s underplaying everything, creating a weird mix of acting styles. (The only performer who seems mostly at home in front of the studio audience is Mays.) The pilot builds to a climactic dance sequence that doesn’t succeed in creating the huge laughs it aims for, and Smoove’s character doesn’t appear to have a real purpose within the show’s ensemble.
Also, there are jokes about old people having sex and farts and shower masturbation, the sorts of jokes that come across as unabashedly crass even when done well. Here, they don’t rise to even that level, with all involved seeming a little embarrassed by them. The pilot is directed by the legendary James Burrows, who’s perhaps best known now for keeping everything moving along at a lightning-quick pace, and that’s what he does here: The grosser jokes don’t linger, except in the imagination, but they do suggest the show might go all in on toilet humor at some point or another.
Yet The Millers has plenty to recommend it, too. For one thing, that cast is stacked, and even if the ensemble hasn’t yet completely meshed, it will within a few episodes, by the simple physics of TV gravity. More importantly, all of those actors are already creating different kinds of relationships with each other. The wryly cute couple of Mays and Franklin offer each other something different from the hectoring anger that Bridges and Martindale throw at each other, which is different from the camaraderie between Arnett and Smoove. It’s a well-tuned ensemble that will just need a couple of episodes to find its feet as a comic machine.
And then there’s the show’s creator, Greg Garcia. Garcia has been responsible for pilots both pretty good (My Name Is Earl) and pretty bad (Raising Hope) but he has a finely tuned sense of when to tweak elements of his show and when to outright ditch them to make things work. (The baby-endangerment gags of the Raising Hope pilot mostly disappeared after that episode.) What’s more, Garcia offers up plenty of different kinds of jokes. Sure, there’s potty humor, but there are also pop-culture references and big slapstick moments (like Martindale trying to eat ice cream with a spatula) and even some outright weird one-liners. (The best is Arnett describing a healthy smoothie as tasting like someone dropped a popsicle in a tide pool.)
TV comedy is often about coming up with a bunch of different gags that will appeal to a bunch of different people. That’s a vanishing art in the age of the niche sitcom, but with a little time and patience, Garcia might crack that code.
Created by: Greg Garcia
Starring: Will Arnett, Margo Martindale, Beau Bridges, JB Smoove
Debuts: Thursday at 8:30 p.m. Eastern on CBS
Format: Half-hour, multi-camera sitcom
Pilot watched for review