The Goodwin Games

The Goodwin Games debuts tonight on Fox at 8:30 p.m. Eastern.

The Goodwin Games is the first series from Carter Bays and Craig Thomas to make it to air since How I Met Your Mother launched in 2005 (they wrote the pilot with HIMYM writer Chris Harris). Its late-May premiere suggests instant doom for the show despite an impressive pedigree—along with Bays and Thomas, the talented Becki Newton, Scott Foley, and TJ Miller topline the show, and Beau Bridges appears via videotape as their wacky deceased dad. There’s a generous soupcon of heart and whimsy, as any HIMYM fan might expect, and hints of breezy chemistry from its ensemble.

So what went wrong? Well, the most glaring fault in The Goodwin Games is exactly what has plagued How I Met Your Mother, especially in recent years—it’s always at risk of being swallowed up in its own gimmick. The plot is relatively simple: The three Goodwin siblings, buttoned-down successful Henry (Foley) with a drinking problem and an ex-fiancée, math whiz Chloe (Newton) who’s slumming it as an actress, and repeat convict Jimmy (Miller), reunite for their father’s funeral in their small New Hampshire hometown.

There, they learn that their wacky dad not only was a multi-millionaire somehow, but that he’s set up a series of elaborate games to allow them to contest for his inheritance. These challenges are set up via videotape, a funhouse-mirror version of Ted Mosby’s narration to his kids in How I Met Your Mother. The elaborate nature of the games and their presentation is by far the least interesting thing about The Goodwin Games, but it’s what the show is most obsessed with.

It doesn’t give Foley, Newton, or Miller time to breathe or interact with each other without the rules of the games being discussed or some further plot twist coming down the pike. Mysteries are left unsolved, such as why Daddy Goodwin had so much money, for no good reason since this show isn’t Lost. The moral of the episode revolves around the gang forgetting their differences and remembering how to get along with each other, but having them compete for $23 million doesn’t seem like a very rational way to do that.

I wouldn’t nitpick if the show wasn’t so obsessed with these games. Otherwise, the concept is not bad. Everyone’s obviously going to have to move into the old family house and learn to live with each other once again; Henry has his old flame Lucinda (Kat Foster) to flirt with, and Jimmy has a cute daughter he’s trying to keep in his life. Miller, a gifted comedian who has a very unique, very memorable way of delivering lines, makes the best first impression, and he is gifted with a colorful character with a lot of funny non sequiturs to close scenes.

Newton struggles to establish Chloe’s child prodigy side—she basically just seems like a slightly bitchy but well-meaning actress type, and without her bespectacled childhood self, glimpsed in flashback, you’d struggle to tell she had undergone some massive personality shift. Foley is burdened with an incredibly hacky, incredibly unlikable male lead role who walked out of a shitty romcom, barking orders at nurses in his opening scene and being told by every other character what a pent-up straight man he is. We get it, he needs to loosen up.

The Goodwin Games, which filmed only seven episodes, doesn’t have a chance in hell, and honestly, that’s too bad, because for the pilot’s flaws, it is well-made and has a cast that could certainly grow to impress. How I Met Your Mother had a better pilot than this, although it was still too clunky, also obsessed with exposition and its own complicated premise, but once the cast got room to breathe it became an ensemble sitcom worth watching.

But it’s easy to see why The Goodwin Games failed to catch fire and nab a timeslot during Fox’s 2012-2013 season. Everything’s just a little off—the plot requires an overwhelming amount of boring setup, the sweet character moments and family closeness feels schlocky, and the dad character doesn’t have a fixed identity. Is he a mad scientist? A wacky tycoon? Why on earth does he behave the way he behaves? Edges of anger have been sanded away to the point that it’s hard to understand why these characters are as screwed-up as they are; sure, Beau Bridges seems like a high-maintenance dad, but at least he was nice to them.

Stray observations:

  • Jerrod Carmichael, a very funny stand-up, has a memorable role in this pilot as the mysterious Elijah, another Lost-like plot element with no explanation.
  • Peyton Reed, who directed Bring It On and the great meta romcom Down With Love among others, directed the pilot and a couple other episodes of this. It doesn’t really show.