Breaking In debuts tonight on Fox at 9:30 p.m. Eastern (or whenever American Idol gets over).
Breaking In is just the latest example of a new genre of single-camera shows that may as well be called the “wacky shit happens, and it’s funny because it’s CRAZY?!” genre. For another recent example, please see Mr. Sunshine, where the sight of dozens of axe-wielding clowns was supposed to be funny mostly because there were dozens of axe-wielding clowns, and when’s the last time you saw THAT in your office, amirite? These shows don’t often sink to the depths of the truly terrible, since there’s always something going on, but they struggle to rise above mediocre or average, even though they always seem like they’re going to take off, due to certain promising elements of intriguing premises. Breaking In, in fact, almost seems like it would work if it were an hour-long dramedy on USA or something, instead of the half-hour comedy we’ve gotten. There’s too much plot for a half-hour, and it tends to drown out the laughs. But the laughs are so anemic that you wish the show would just get on with the plot already.
The needlessly convoluted premise of the show (which, we'll note here, was created by Adam F. Goldberg and produced by Adam Sandler's Happy Madison Productions, with direction from Seth Gordon of King Of Kong fame) is thus: Christian Slater plays a man named Oz, who runs an operation that helps rich people and companies determine their security weaknesses by breaking into their impenetrable fortresses and finding the weak points. (Or, rather, coming up with schemes to break in that are so incredibly convoluted that there would essentially be no way to stop them, even knowing they were coming, since they rely on so many moving parts going right. But that’s neither here nor there.) He employs the requisite team of geniuses, including Alphonso McAuley as Cash, the nerdy gadgets guy you may have seen on shows like this before; Odette Annable (nee Yustman) as Melanie, the wild and crazy hot chick who’s an expert safecracker; and Trevor Moore as Josh, the master of disguise who’s not a series regular, for some reason. Also, Jennifer Irwin pops up as Carol, the character solely designed to poke her head in on the edges of the frame and say vaguely icky stuff, then laugh shadily.
Anyway, into Oz’s life comes young Cameron, who may as well just be named Bret Harrison, because he’s played by Bret Harrison in what’s become the “Bret Harrison role,” thanks to the actor’s seeming inability to escape constantly playing slyly amusing slacker dudes with a thing for hot brunettes. (See also: The criminally underrated The Loop—an example of the “crazy shit happens” show done right—and Reaper, which should really be cruising through its fourth season right about now.) Cam is a 27-year-old slacker, vegging his way through college by hacking into the school’s database to make sure no harm comes to him until Oz gets wind of his exploits and signs him up to be his new intern. If he doesn’t play ball, well, Oz can make sure he eventually has to pay all of the considerable tuition he’s racked up, and he wouldn’t want that. Soon, Cam is working at Contra Security and even planning the next break-in, which seems like a lot of trust to place in an intern. (At The A.V. Club, interns are put in charge of feeding me grapes and fanning me as I recline.)
This is all promising enough, I suppose. It’s something like the plot structures and team-based fun of Leverage crossed with the pop culture jokes and wacky sight gags of Community, but the show doesn’t have the well-drawn characters (or even the well-drawn archetypes) of either of those shows. As Cash shouts jokes about vaguely nerdy things like Star Trek and Star Wars into the ether (making him seem for all the world like a Big Bang Theory reject thrust into an unforgiving single-camera world, since that show also has a fear of making its geeks too geeky) and Melanie gets the requisite amounts of “this hot chick is sure crazy!” jokes and Oz gets by on being cool and doing things that puncture his cool façade, you can see where the jokes are SUPPOSED to be, but very few of them are actually, y’know, funny. Cash makes a Chewbacca noise. Melanie rides into the office on a motorcycle. Oz keeps saying “I’ll allow it.” Josh disguises himself as a frat boy and keeps using the word “frat” in ways it shouldn’t be used. It’s all “wacky,” in that sitcommy way, but none of it actually has the strong character basis or the strong, pure gag writing to actually qualify as funny. Even an escalating prank war that has the potential to be funny doesn't quite work.
There are places where this almost works. The cast assembled is strong, and even though you yourself could probably write a Bret Harrison character in your sleep by now, Harrison knows the way to deliver lines for this character to make them at least a little amusing. Similarly, Slater isn’t doing much other than coasting on his own image here, but he’s having fun with the idea of himself as a faded icon of cool, a guy who fell off the map for a while but kept on living and is now making another go of it. There’s something vaguely effortless about his Oz, and while I didn’t really laugh at anything he did, I could have easily bought him as the lead of a theoretical hour-long version of the show, that ramped up the action a bit to give the jokes room to breathe. And, wonder of wonders, I actually really enjoyed Michael Rosenbaum (formerly Lex Luthor on Smallville) as Melanie’s douche-y boyfriend Dutch. It’s an underwritten part, but Rosenbaum throws himself into it with gusto and finds laughs in lines that shouldn’t even be funny.
However, the show is plotted like an hour-long drama, then smashed down into just over 20 minutes. Normally, this could be a badge of honor, since the show actually does fit roughly the same number of twists and turns you’d get out of an average episode of Leverage or White Collar into that half-hour. In this case, though, everything ends up feeling just a little too busy. Tonight’s pilot, for instance, first features the establishment of just how Cam came to work at Contra and all of the crazy characters he works with, then features not one but TWO heist sequences, to the point where the second is dispatched with as quickly as the writers can handle it. Next week’s episode, which is (in a bad sign) a step down from the pilot, features a myriad of twists and turns, though none of them land with any sort of force. This is clearly a show that started from plot and pop culture riffs first, then put characters second.
And as on most other “crazy shit happens” shows before Breaking In, none of this catches fire, as if the writers thought that simply just having the characters act wacky or having wacky things going on in the background would be enough to get us to laugh. And in some cases, I’m sure, that will be enough. Crazy shit happens shows—even the very worst of them—tend to attract devoted audiences, audiences that like seeing far bigger and wackier jokes than could be seen on your more traditional multi-camera or mockumentary sitcoms. And that’s fine! But Breaking In is just too bland and laugh-free to ever work as anything other than a show that’s a pleasant enough way to waste some time but nothing more. There are a lot of elements that could work here, but there’s no core to hang onto, and that makes it all feel empty.