The multi-camera, taped-in-front-of-a-live-audience sitcom isn’t going anywhere. And there’s no reason it should, really: In spite of a solid decade of single-camera shows attempting to rewrite the sitcom rulebook (while always keeping a cribsheet of the old rules handy), only Modern Family has risen to the ranks of people’s champs like The Big Bang Theory and Two And A Half Men. As long as the cheaper, more accessible option of comedies that laugh with the listener exists, television programmers will continue to rely on the format. They’ve sold 100 episodes of Anger Management to the affiliates. They’ve greenlit the transformation of Up All Night. And they’ve ordered five additional scripts of Guys With Kids, despite the fact that it hasn’t exactly lit the Nielsens on fire.
There’s nothing wrong with this. Much of the medium’s best work was made within this format. But because of shows like Guys With Kids, the multi-camera, taped-in-front-of-a-live-audience sitcom isn’t going anywhere. Like “not moving forward.” Not advancing, nor being taken to new places. Re-establishing, as these kinds of shows so often do, the status quo by the end of the half-hour. And how could it, really? What’s left to say about child-rearing and marriage that hasn’t already been contorted into countless sitcom convolutions before?
But if Guys With Kids is just going to be 22 weekly minutes of inoffensive domestic laughs lapping against those kooky extraterrestrials on ABC, at least it’s had the decency to take a few steps onward from its crummy pilot. Don’t rely on the word of Brian Posehn (returning in “The Bathroom Incident” as the Brian Posehn-like handyman Victor) alone: You can remember these characters’ names—and they’ve picked up more nuanced personalities and recognizable character traits that help them feel less like multiple variations on the same frazzled husband-wife types. The characters played by Jamie Lynn Sigler and Tempestt Bledsoe remain blurry around the edges (though Sigler’s wide-eyed, wildly gesticulating performance still isn’t doing her any favors there), but the six episodes that followed the pilot have given better shape to Anthony Anderson, Jesse Bradford, Zach Cregger, and Erinn Hayes’ onscreen personas. For example, Bradford’s playing the uptight first-time dad, which sheds some light on what drove his Chris and Hayes’ Sheila apart. Cregger provides the yin to those too-similar yangs, which explains a lot about Nick’s friendship with Chris—and his rivalry with Sheila. Gary (Anderson) is worn down by his stay-at-home-dad status, but he’s committed to fatherhood, goddamnit. They retain the trappings of stock types, but they’re stock types that have begun to behave in believable, consistent ways.
If only something could be done about the show’s sense of constriction. At the end of episode five, “Gary’s Day Off”—where Gary puts his kids before prime seats at MetLife Stadium, because that’s how much of a dad he is—Sheila moves into an apartment a few floors about her ex-husband. As such, all six characters now live in the high-rise, which wouldn’t be so bad if that high-rise didn’t seem sealed off from the rest of the world. The A-plot of tonight’s “The Bathroom Incident” heightens that troubling claustrophobia by isolating Chris, Nick, and Gary in one corner of Nick’s apartment after they strand two of the show’s four babies/props in a locked bathroom. Outside of its cold opens and tags, the show subscribes to some crazy matryoshka doll school of staging, and there aren’t enough background characters filtering through the apartment building to alleviate that sensation. Were it not for the firefighters who eventually liberate Ernie and Freddie, theories that the principals occupy a high-rise stronghold in the middle of an apocalyptic wasteland would have some credence.
Another way to relieve that constriction involves learning something about these characters outside of their roles as parents—which “The Bathroom Incident” does through clunky exposition and Sudden Quirk Onset, the latter exemplified by Emily’s newfound passion for organization. (This from the woman who can never look nothing-if-not-orderly Sheila directly in the eye.) When it comes to shading in the guys’ past with one another, the show’s writing staff prefer to paint in broad, “remember when” strokes, like tonight’s reminders that Chris spent his undergrad years as a straitlaced student perpetually undone by hell-raiser Nick. In past episodes, the writers have managed more elegant forms of history-building—the supposed lowlights of Chris’ idyllic childhood being a prime example—but it’s easier to pull belly laughs from bleachers full of tourists by letting Bradford yell about all the fine messes Nick has gotten Chris into.
The comedy team of Bradford and Cregger falls flat this week, lacking the spark and simmering-rage-cum-begrudging-tolerance that makes Cregger’s scenes with Hayes Guys With Kids’ one true sign of life. Nick and Sheila have a venomous relationship, but it’s venomous in a teasing, Diane-Carla way (as opposed to a Chuck Lorre “I hate everyone and everything” way), and seeing the two reluctantly team up in last week’s “Apartment Halloween” demonstrated how handily they outmatch their co-stars. Every other member of the cast tends to go big, brassy, and play-to-the-back-of-the-auditorium in their performances—even Bledsoe, who, as a former Huxtable, should know better—forcing Cregger and Hayes to play subtle and small. Not too surprisingly, that earns them the bulk of the show’s laughs—like when Nick slips a flummoxed Chris an understated “By the way, I still have your hammer” in “The Bathroom Incident.”
So, no, Guys With Kids hasn’t morphed into TV’s next great comedy behind your back. But it also hasn’t dug its heels into its original “men trying to raise children = hilarious” premise, finding different (though familiar) routes to explore the ways in which young parents relate to their offspring and one another. Seven episodes isn’t much time to make progress in a static, set-in-its-ways format like the multi-camera sitcom, but for those who aren’t automatically turned off by the laughter of invisible strangers, it’s encouraging to see even the small bit of headway Guys With Kids has made. It’s doubtful it’ll live to make too much more—though a show where every episode feels like a bottle episode might turn a profit with such mild ratings. After all, the one form of change this format isn’t resistant to is a schedule change.