Family Tools

Family Tools debuts tonight on ABC at 8:30 p.m. Eastern.

It used to be easy to identify which shows the networks had faith in simply by looking at the time of the year in which those shows were released. Those programs in which the networks most firmly believed got prime pushes in the fall, and everything else simply appeared later, like bandits in the low-rated night. But nowadays, between the sheer number of networks and the overwhelming number of shows they produce, it’s not so easy to judge a show simply by its premiere date. Much in the way that the cinematic blockbuster season edges ever closer to the start of the calendar year, the window for networks to roll out quality programs has grown exponentially over the past decade. All of this is a way to say that there’s no reason to assume ABC’s comedy Family Tools is a terrible, unfunny, head-scratching addition to the network simply because it’s premiering in May. Rather, you should know it would be a terrible, unfunny, head-scratching addition to the network no matter when it premiered. 

In terms of its overall setting, it’s firmly within the network’s wheelhouse of comedy. The show takes an almost Frankenstein approach to its individual pieces, snipping off aspects of more successful, funnier shows already in ABC’s lineup. It features a mixture of wacky relatives who constantly intersect in each others' lives (Modern Family), some kooky neighbors (Suburgatory), and a blue-collar setting (The Middle). If this show were designed by committee, it couldn’t have a better mixture of things that already exist. And yet, even though Family Tools is in fact a remake of a British show (White Man Van) and not the result of an undercaffeinated focus group, it feels much more like the latter than the former. 

The show centers on Jack Shea, played by expert Everyman Kyle Bornheimer. Bornheimer is great at playing leads that exist at the center of a comedic maelstrom, portraying characters trying to keep their feet planted firmly on the ground while everyone else around him tries to lift him into the tornado. Jack, by contrast, isn’t the straight man so much simply a bland one. The pilot introduces him returning home to take over Mr. Jiffy Fix, a handyman business run by his father Tony. Played by the great (yet utterly wasted) J.K. Simmons, Tony finds himself in a hospital bed after his fifth heart attack looking his no-good son in the eye. Why? Because Tony’s sister, Terry (Leah Remini) has texted Jack to return home to relieve Tony’s workload and maybe, just maybe, get father and son on good terms for the first time. Hold your breath, guys.

This is all by-the-book plotting, which honestly isn’t a huge problem. Shows, especially comedies, need not have overly elaborate or original premises in order to bring the funny. In fact, you could argue that the best comedies have the simplest premises. But other than sketching in the basic reasons for these characters to be in the same proximity to one another, Family Tools doesn’t have a clue what to do with them. As such, it’s tonally dissonant, resulting in a pilot that feels like it’s trying on different outfits in order to see what looks and feels best. In terms of focus and tone, it’s all over the map. What’s worse is that none of the variation it attempts earns more than a slight smile. Want physical comedy? You’ll get some. Like wacky family members that are mean to each other yet deep down love one other? You’ll get a taste of that. Anxious to see employees acting unprofessionally without fear of being fired? Don’t you worry. Want voiceovers that appear intermittently and without rhyme or reason? Sure ya do!

Bornheimer is the ostensible lead of this show, but the pilot rarely feels as if it hinges on him. Rather, Jack feels more like an interloper for a show that probably was better before he came back home. His inability to hold down any job for any amount of time is played for laughs, but nothing in the first episode suggests that he’s actually a victim of fate but rather his own shortcomings. On top of that, he’s kind of a dick for the majority of tonight’s pilot, unwilling to listen to any advice about running Mr. Jiffy Fix and spending most of his energy trying to get Tony’s long-time assistant Darren (Edi Gathegi) fired. Despite all this, Darren’s hot sister Stitch (Danielle Nicolet) keeps hitting on Jack with single entendre after single entendre, because why the fuck not? Nothing else seems to make much sense here, so might as well throw in some sexual innuendo for the cheap seats.

Ultimately, Family Tools comes from a strain of ABC comedy that it has yet to fully stamp out. Comparing this show to Man Up and Work It is probably too harsh, since neither of those shows had the good sense to bring in J.K. Simmons to class the joint up a bit. But Tools does wrestle with outdated modes of masculinity and bizarre notions of “mancessions,” only without the actual balls to own up to its antiquated analysis. At least Man Up and Work It wore their obliviousness for all to see. Here, it’s subsumed in a morass of a dozen other innocuous half-baked ideas. Jack’s desire to use Mr. Jiffy Fix to do pro bono work using eco-friendly materials is played for laughs, as if only by casting off those “feminine” shackles will be truly earn his father’s admiration. It’s bizarre to see this on display in a week where the first professional athlete in American big-ticket sports came out as a gay man. If you come to Family Tools looking for a new take on successful sitcom tropes, you’ll be disappointed. But if you come to see a man run through town in a female yoga outfit, you’ll be plenty happy with what you see. Hopefully, given ABC’s timing, few people will have the misfortune of actually gazing upon it.

Stray observations:

  • The “kooky neighbors” mentioned above primarily takes the form of Adam Arkin, seemingly here because he got lost on the way to the set for Justified. In fact, if you think of his role here as Theo Tonin living incognito, the pilot gets immensely better.
  • Simmons does “cranky” in his sleep at this point, but having his character repeatedly use “fruit loops” as a cuss word defangs him immensely.
  • There’s an old dude in a wheelchair whom everyone constantly thinks is dead, because I guess that's funny.

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