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.
Some shortcutting is to be expected from the first episode of a new TV show—but among the shows premiering this fall, no other teleports from point A to point B quite like Welcome To The Family. Created by former Rules Of Engagement executive producer Mike Sikowitz, the show’s pilot wastes no time in establishing (and then subsequently paying off) its premise: On the day of their graduation from separate high schools, flighty Ella Rae Peck informs Stanford-bound boyfriend Joseph Haro that she’s pregnant. It comes as a shock to both parties involved, but neither pauses to consider what’s happened or what’s to come—a few intercut scenes later and they’re prepared to have the kid and get married. No decision is too life-altering or multi-faceted to delay the culture-clash comedy train.
It’s a matter of speed, and Welcome To The Family evidently doesn’t want to shake off any potential viewers by patiently meting out the nuances of two teens deferring their lives to raise a child together. While that disposes of some irksome hemming and hawing, it also rids the show of any sense of naturalism. Haro and Peck’s characters aren’t making these choices because they’re the right decisions for them—they’re doing so because they’re the right decisions for a TV show. The strings pulling at the series’ two (soon to be three) families are visible in every scene of the pilot, a necessary evil when 22 minutes of a sitcom drags its characters through enough story to fill out an additional five or six episodes. At this rate, it would be no surprise if Peck gives birth in the middle of November sweeps.
That rapid clip beats a lot of subtlety out of Sikowitz’s script. Haro is introduced behind a graduation-ceremony lectern, and every piece of dialogue he’s given thereafter rings like a platitude-packed valedictorian’s speech. And without the time to linger on just one development in Haro and Peck’s relationship or dwell on a single conflict between Ricardo Chavira and Mike O’Malley’s dueling dads, much of Welcome To The Family’s dialogue comes down to similarly bald statements of backstory—as when, during a moment of motherly bonding moment between Justina Machado and Mary McCormack, Machado explains away her husband’s trust issues with an out-of-nowhere reference to an absent father. Given the show’s themes about assumptions and acceptance, perhaps there’s something subliminal at work in the way the characters are constantly labeling one another: Chavira’s complaints about “entitled poseurs” like O’Malley, or the multiple examples of Haro being summed up by his academic achievements.
Yet there are moments in the pilot where a smarter, more closely observed Welcome To The Family peeks through. A lot of the material involving Peck—predicated as it is on hoary “dumb blonde” tropes—takes a lighter touch in explaining who her character is and how she’s hidden most of her high-school life (including Haro) from McCormack and O’Malley. The most unfortunate victim of Welcome To The Family’s pacing is the pilot’s sense of humor; a recurring gag about Peck’s phone illustrates that the show knows how to tell a joke when it’s not devouring plot.
It’s the voice with which the show tells those jokes that’s in need of refining. Arriving a year after The New Normal claimed to bring the bite of Norman Lear back to primetime (but ended up looking like Archie Bunker wearing wax fangs), NBC’s newest sitcom rooted in a hot-button topic shows no teeth at all. In the first episode of Welcome To The Family, racial and socioeconomic skeletons are momentarily raised, only to be buried deep in the closet; lip service is paid toward women’s rights without so much as a passing mention of the rights reinforced by Roe v. Wade. Perhaps this is just further fallout from the haste of the pilot, and future episodes will feature the characters expressing opinions that aren’t calibrated for non-offense or subject to instant reversal for the sake of a laugh.
But success for Welcome To The Family won’t be determined by how the show illustrates the differences between the Yoders and the Hernandezes—as the pilot’s constant use of the word “family” attests, this is a show about finding common ground. The challenge, then, involves giving these characters a reason to stick together beyond the new person/plot device that will drive the rest of the season. Because a family can certainly be defined by what its members say about one another, but a TV family worth following needs to put some feeling and some action behind those words. That’s assuming they can catch their breath long enough to consider those feelings, of course.
Welcome To The Family
Created by: Mike Sikowitz
Starring: Ella Rae Peck, Joseph Haro, Mike O’Malley, Ricardo Chavira, Mary McCormack, Justina Machado
Format: Single-camera half-hour comedy
Pilot episode watched for review