$#*! My Dad Says - "Pilot"

$#*! My Dad Says debuts tonight on CBS at 8:30 p.m. Eastern.

Here's the thing.

The Twitter feed @shitmydadsays could have made for a great sitcom. No. Really. Everyone's been mocking the idea of $#*! My Dad Says, the series (which will forthwith be referred to as Shit because we're all adults here, and typing all of the symbols is irritating), roughly since it was first announced. It feels like Hollywood's latest attempt to be "hip" and "trendy," when it's so obviously behind the times and out of it and SQUARE, man. This is just like how they're making that Facebook movie, never mind the fact that The Social Network is getting some of the best reviews of the year. Hollywood just doesn't get the Internet or young people or anything like that, and it never will.

But the best TV comedies are built around relationships, core relationships like nothing else we've seen before. A flighty woman distresses her husband with her constant scheming. A conservative father-in-law and his liberal son-in-law love each other almost as much as they hate each other. A cynical bartender and a prissy waitress fall into a kind of loathing that turns into a kind of love. The one stable son has to hold up his entire family of lunatics, while trying to hide the fact that he, himself, is a lunatic. Take any great comedy in the history of television (or, really, drama), and it can be boiled down, in its essence, to one key relationship, one key bond between people that is endlessly elastic and expressive. There's a reason mother-in-law jokes have never really gone out of style: Almost everybody can relate.

The Twitter feed of Justin Halpern took off because it reflected any number of things. But most key among them were these three observations: 1.) Halpern's dad was a funny, crusty old guy, who said some pretty amusing and occasionally profound things in a way that didn't mince words. 2.) Halpern himself reflected the then-pretty-new phenomenon of recent college graduates and other people in their 20s moving back in with their parents, an offshoot of the recession that TV has mostly tried to pretend doesn't exist. 3.) The relationship between Halpern and his dad was clearly cantankerous but in the process of being fixed; they were two men who were finding their way to an understanding of each other far later than most fathers and sons find their way to an understanding of each other.

So the TV version of Shit could have been gold. It's not terribly likely, obviously, since most TV shows and most TV sitcoms are terrible, but there was the potential there to have a really funny show about an elderly man and his much younger son coming to an understanding about what makes the other tick. There could have been some social commentary on how hard it is to find a job in the United States. There could have been an opportunity for scenes that played around with the emotional high stakes of this moment, of the idea that this is the last chance for this older man to make good with his offspring. It probably wasn't worth hoping for anything, but, really, the central relationship of the show was good enough to dream that the series might turn out to be worth watching.

It's not. This is one of the most astoundingly unfunny pilots in years and years, all the more astoundingly unfunny because it comes from two sitcom vets, David Kohan and Max Mutchnik, who aren't the greatest writers in the medium's history but are at least pros enough to know how to structure a joke. The whole idea here seems to be, "Let's put William Shatner in a chair and have him bark at people," and while there have been two versions of the pilot, not much thought has been put into making this a television show beyond, "Aren't the kids on the Twitter nowadays? And one of the feeds is about an old man? And we can get Shatner? Sold!"

The first pilot was almost hilariously bad, and there was no good reason for CBS to send it out. Usually, networks "sweeten" the laughter on the dead gags in the pilots they send out to critics. But there were whole stretches of the original Shit pilot where the gags played out to stony silence, the studio audience clearly as unamused by the gags as the viewers at home. The actors kept mugging and waiting for laughs that didn't come, and it was one of the weirdest things sent to critics in recent years. (Usually, this shit gets held for reshoots.) The second pilot, somehow, is even worse, because it takes what was terrible and makes it completely bland. CBS and the producers didn't even bother to realize what was wrong with the original pilot, what the studio audience found so unfunny, and have instead just recast the lead. The original lead wasn't great (he's been good on other shows), but the new lead - Jonathan Sadowski - is much, much worse. He forces every interaction, making him seem weirdly aggressive.

Shatner, of course, is Shatner. He seems to at least be trying here, but there's really nothing in the role that will give him something to play beyond, "This dad is really a crazy old man!" There are awkward attempts to shoehorn in exposition about his life, gags about how he's an old man, and lots and lots of scenes where he just shouts things at everyone from his chair. The most painful interactions come between him and his son and daughter-in-law, a pair of real estate agents, when he suggests that maybe he could move in with the two, and the two begin speaking in nonsense syllables. Our lead has set up that this will happen, so it's supposed to be funny, but it's trapped by the fact that there is no way on Earth anything like this would ever happen. It's wacky behavior tossed out there for the sake of having some wacky behavior in there.

Apparently, it's not enough for this pilot to be poorly acted, horribly written, startlingly unfunny, filled with unnecessary exposition, and oddly paced. It also has to be full of moments where the people in it don't act like people, where they act like stock sitcom characters. The scenario outlined above where Shit could have been a pretty good show stems from the idea that the show would treat its characters like human beings. Instead, the series has figured out a way to treat each and every one of its characters like a Twitter feed, full of pithy bites of information that suggest there's very little below the surface and jokes that strain for something beyond labored, obvious punchlines. There's no reason Shit couldn't have been an enjoyable show, but in the process of retooling it, CBS and the producers just managed to make it marginally closer to mediocre. Sadly, when the foundation of a show is as rotten as this one, that doesn't help very much at all. Law & Order: Los Angeles still hasn't been sent to critics, but at least that show has Terrence Howard and Alfred Molina, which is a long way of saying that it's fairly safe to declare Shit My Dad Says the worst pilot of the fall.

More TV Club