Baby Daddy debuts tonight on ABC Family at 8:30 p.m. Eastern.
A list of things that happen in literally the first minute of Baby Daddy’s pilot: A man moves into his brother’s apartment and announces he has been traded to the New York Rangers, even though everybody there would already know this. The brother’s current roommate arrives to learn that the brother has moved in and promptly lays out his relationship to everybody involved, as well as his obsessions with nobody eating the food on his side of the fridge (particularly the hockey player, who would probably need to eat a lot of food to keep his energy levels up). There’s some general excitement about how awesome all of this is going to be, how nothing can spoil it, etc. There’s a knock at the door. The brother of the hockey player goes to answer and discovers somebody has left a baby on the doorstep. He takes it inside like this happens every day, like he’s signed up for one of those organic-produce-delivery services that drops off a baby every two-to-three weeks.
That’s a lot to load into one minute of screen-time. Even if it was well-done—it’s not—the whole thing would feel rushed, just as a matter of course, and “rushed exposition” is rarely the best mode for a comedy to operate in. But then the show ladles on even more exposition. The baby is the product of a union between the hockey player’s brother (who turns out to be the main character, despite being the least interesting person here) and an ex-girlfriend, who “just needs some time” apart from her baby and has thus left the child for her ex to take care of. The hockey player—thinking fast—calls up a childhood friend of the two brothers, who’s now in law school and thus might have some idea how to deal with the implications of a surprise baby. She’s a girl they both used to call “Fatpants,” so since this is television, you know she’s going to have lost a bunch of weight and be thin, blonde, and pretty. She has, and she is.
This is a remarkable amount of strain to place at the top of a show that’s pretty much just Three Men And A Baby. The audience doesn’t need to know all of this to get why the idea of three lunkheads raising a baby is inherently amusing. There are all sorts of cultural stereotypes in place, designed to make us laugh at the idea. But the show feels like it’s necessary to spell everything out within those first five minutes, and it starts to feel exhausting. The series isn’t funny or clever enough to make viewers want to keep watching, yet it’s also clear essentially nothing could be funny or clever enough to work here. The Arrested Development pilot had a lot of exposition to deliver, yet it made a joke out of how much information there was to convey, and it really did have a lot of relationships and characters to explain. Baby Daddy has, well, three men, a baby, and a girl who used to be overweight. We don’t need everything up top.
This exemplifies the main problem with the boring, unfunny Baby Daddy, which is that the show is never content to show us anything and tells us everything. Take our main character, Ben. He’s the main character by virtue of being, well, the person in the title, yet he’s seemingly nothing else. The other characters—particularly said girl who’s, of course, nursing a childhood crush on him despite the fact that he called her “Fatpants” and “Rigantor” all those years—just tell us a lot about why we should care about him. The idea of this guy having a baby is supposed to be so inherently wacky that neither of the two episodes ABC Family sent out bother to give us even the slightest bit of actual characterization. As played by Jean-Luc Bilodeau, Ben is a complete and utter cipher, someone whose status as protagonist only makes sense if you think every show’s title should be as literal as possible.
The two roommates fare slightly better. They don’t have any material worth delivering, but Derek Theler (as hockey-playing brother Danny) and Tahj Mowry (as anal-retentive roommate Tucker) at least bring a high-spirited energy to the stuff they’re given to do. Mowry grew up in the sitcom world, and he has the rhythms down pat. In some ways, Tucker is a bit of a loathsome character, and it’s hard to imagine why anyone would hand out with him. Yet Mowry gives him a bit of spirit that makes it seem like, yeah, this guy could be a really fun friend if you got a few drinks in him. The two are so much more interesting than Ben that it sets off a bit of a charisma death spiral at the show’s center. Why aren’t we watching a series about these two mismatched roommates? Sure, it would just be The Odd Couple, but it’s not like this is a premise that’s never been done before to begin with (despite the pilot treating it as one).
The women of the cast are similarly hit and miss. Sitcom pro Melissa Peterman turns up as Ben and Danny’s mother, and she’s also given weak material, but she at least makes some of it play. (The one time I didn’t stare stone-faced at the two episodes involved Peterman just selling the hell out of a joke, to the point where one half of my mouth went up in a grim grin.) Chelsea Kane has been slotted into the role of Riley, or “Fatpants,” who’s clearly meant to be a love interest for both Ben and Danny, but she vacillates between being vaguely winning and blandly awful in her line delivery. (Kane has a tic on delivering the word “What?” that’s clearly meant to be a sort of catchphrase, but it just doesn’t work any time it pops up in either episode.) The relationship between Ben and Riley never catches fire because all they ever do is talk exposition to each other, which is not exactly the basis of a strong relationship.
Then again, as Peterman’s struggles show, there was probably no way any cast could have saved this material. It’s easy to harp on the actors in a situation like this because they’re either flailing or listless, but that’s because the script (by creator Dan Berendsen) is just so weak. There are no laughs here. More importantly, there is no story. In both episodes, there’s just a series of things that happen, and the audience is expected to believe major emotional shifts just because the characters tell us they’ve occurred. Even worse, major, life-altering events are shrugged off in as blasé a fashion as possible. That baby on the doorstep should prompt an emotion more pointed in Ben and his friends than mild curiosity, yet they all continue to act as if this is the most normal thing in the world. When the mother wants to give the baby up for adoption, there’s no gravity to that idea, perhaps because all of the characters know the title of the show they’re in. In the other episode screened, a nurse practitioner who checks on wee baby Emma falls in love instantly with Ben, simply because she has to, and when the two break up, it’s more because she’s a guest star than for any real reason. (This is technically a spoiler, but you’ve watched television before.)
Lighthearted family comedies, particularly ones shot in the multi-camera style before a live, studio audience as this one is, are tough to do well in this day and age. There have been so many, and the rhythms are so familiar to us, that there’s just no way to do anything new or surprising with the form. Not every show needs to be new or surprising to be good, of course, but every show needs to at least be trying, needs to present us characters who behave like actual human beings and not alien simulacra of how human beings might behave. (Though it’s not a good show, at least everybody involved with Baby Daddy’s time slot companion, Melissa & Joey, is trying to do this.) Everything is stiff and off-putting and weird. It’s not funny, and it’s not particularly interesting to watch because of how bad it is either. Some of the actors are trying, yes, but they’re howling into a void—and, worse, at a void, since the guy at the show’s center is a walking black hole by design. A lighthearted family sitcom shouldn’t need to be the greatest show ever to be effective, but it’s generally best if they don’t seem designed by robots from another world to make us contemplate the pointlessness of our own existence.
At least the baby is cute.