Retired At 35 debuts tonight on TV Land at 10:30 p.m. Eastern after the second-season premiere of Hot In Cleveland.
Like TV Land’s other original sitcom, Hot In Cleveland, everybody on Retired At 35 sure SEEMS to be having a lot of fun, but very little of that fun translates to the audience watching at home. Yet where Hot In Cleveland was at least fairly well-constructed and had four comedy veterans smacking around lazy punchlines until they sort of sounded funny, even if they weren’t funny, Retired At 35 is even lazier, and the cast often isn’t up to the demands of making this stuff seem funnier than it is. Oh, sure, George Segal and Jessica Walter are on hand to give it their best try, but everybody else? They’re a mixed bag, and it leaves the show feeling both stale and boring, which is never a good combination. This is too bad, because TV Land is just about the only network programming to this particular niche of programming, and if they really wanted to, they could attract the talent to make a genuinely good, traditional sitcom. Instead, they seem to have embraced the idea that what audiences want is exactly what they’ve seen before.
David Robbins (Johnathan McClain) has gone to visit his parents on a short break from his work for a company that makes chopsticks, toothpicks, and other food-related wood (the show’s joke, not mine). It’s his mother’s birthday party, and he’s happy to get back to his Floridian hometown to see his parents, baby sister, and old high school chums. Right away, he’s bombarded with demands and questions from his retired parents, played by Segal and Walter as just about the sitcommiest old people you’ve ever seen. He escapes to hang out with a friend, runs into the girl he had a crush on in high school at the bar, gets pushed too far by work, and … well, you’ve seen the title, right? Soon enough, his decision to quit his job and move in with his parents is sparking far-reaching consequences that mean that the show continues to define its premise, over and over, in both episodes TV Land sent out to critics. At least Hot In Cleveland knew exactly what show it wanted to be from the drop of a hat.
It’s not even that this is necessarily a bad premise. A few years back, CBS had a pretty solid pilot script for a show called Early Bird, a show that was never picked up but one that could have been a lot of fun. The premise there was about, again, a young man moving into a retirement community and having to deal with the forced adjustments this made to his life. It was that nice blend of edgy and sweet that shows like this aim for, and while it’s doubtful it would have been a great show, it at least had a comic voice and something to say beyond hackneyed clichés about how old people and young people deal with each other. Because as soon as McClain comes home in this one, Segal is already nattering on about how he doesn’t understand the technology and asking McClain if he gets on the “FacialBook.” (No, McClain says, he doesn’t, but he does spend time “tittering.” Humor!) It goes on from there, with the parents not understanding the son’s world, and the son proving himself to be an asshole by constantly using his cell phone. (The retirement village the parents live in has completely banned cell phones, in a movement that doesn’t make sense with any version of people this age in our reality.)
The other characters fare no better. McClain’s friend is just some guy who occasionally says pithy, vaguely lewd things. Segal’s best friend is another old guy, kind of a bargain-bin Jeffrey Tambor. McClain’s high school crush is a sweet, perky girl who remembers McClain fondly from high school and is impressed by his success in the wood-food industry and New York City. And on and on. It’s not that cliché story developments like this can’t work; predictability can often serve comedy well on television. It’s that there’s been absolutely no effort on the part of Chris Case to make these characters anything beyond the easy stereotypes you’ve seen on a million shows like this. A show set in a retirement community? A show about a son who moves back in with his parents? A show about two older, married people realizing they don’t know if they’re in love anymore? Any one of those shows, or even a combination of those shows, could have been funny with the right point-of-view or comic voice. Instead, Case and his writers just flail at the lowest-hanging fruit, often not even managing to knock it off the tree.
Even more problematically, the show doesn’t have any idea what story development might look like. Stuff just sort of happens, particularly in next week’s episode, where the storyline bounces from place to place, plot point to plot point, with little sense of continuity or character behavior. The series somehow introduces a large number of possible romantic pairings, but it doesn’t really spend any time suggesting why these people might feel this way about each other, outside of being kinda horny. And while it sets up a potentially interesting road block in the way of McClain and his lady love inevitably getting together, that plot point is similarly odd and out of left field. Characters in Retired At 35 mostly just do things because the plot requires them to, and that means that the two episodes screened turn into a long collection of events, instead of anything like a story.
As mentioned above, TV Land could completely own this “traditional sitcoms, made by the people who were making them in the ‘90s” niche if it wanted to. The network is starving for more traditional sitcoms to stick into its lineup of reruns, so it makes a certain kind of sense that it would make its own programming. And it’s not that big of a stretch to imagine the network making some good shows with this method. Sitcoms are cheap enough to produce that even a cable network could attract really top-flight talent at the writing and acting levels. And while I’m not a fan of Hot In Cleveland, that show suggests what the network’s mission statement could be, with a little spit and polish. The second season premiere (sent out with Retired At 35) isn’t a masterpiece of the sitcom form, but all of the actors involved are having fun, and a couple of the jokes land. Retired At 35, on the other hand, features a cast that seems to be having the time of its life, a cast filled with veteran, very funny actors, but we’re not invited to join the party. Everything here is just too lifeless, too lazy, and too preposterous for us to have fun at home.