Sullivan & Son

Sullivan & Son debuts tonight on TBS at 10 p.m. Eastern with two new episodes. It moves to its regular time slot—10:30 p.m. Eastern—starting next week.

Let’s get this out of the way up front: The pilot for Sullivan & Son is a godawful mess. It completely lacks laughs, the characters are grating and horrible, and the show’s idea of a great time is having Brian Doyle Murray stand up and start making the most tired and boring racist jokes imaginable. They’re the sort of jokes that were tired back when 12 Angry Men was hauling them out to let you know that one guy on the jury was a racist asshole; but here’s Murray, gamely trotting them out all over again, as the rest of the cast members stand around and grin like assholes at his supposed old-person charm. The show is bogged down with far too much premise, it has too many characters, and the story is filled with false conflict—because we’ve seen the title of the show and know that the “son” isn’t going to go back to New York City but is instead going to stay in Pittsburgh and take over his old man’s bar. It’s yet another bad sitcom pilot in the summer of bad sitcom pilots, and it’s hard to say whether the pilot for this, Baby Daddy, or Men At Work is worse.

But in the second and third episodes, one of which airs tonight, the show doesn’t get… good, exactly, but it does build up a little steam. It’s still a mess, and it still has big problems, but there are signs that this could be a pleasant enough way to waste some time, the kind of summer show that won’t make you think too hard and will reward you with a few dumb laughs. When Sullivan & Son’s dumb-guy character abruptly gets smart because the bar at the show’s center is closed down in episode two, it’s the oldest gag in the world. But it’s executed with panache, and the sort of things he’s suddenly able to do, thanks to all the time he has on his hands, are surprisingly amusing. The characters start to make sense, the show’s love of politically incorrect jokes is balanced out by having other characters call those making them on their loathsomeness, and the ensemble starts to gel. This isn’t a great show—or even a show worth recommending, really—but it’s a surprise just how bad the pilot is compared to the other two episodes, which are pleasantly mediocre.

The show comes by the laughs it has—and there are a few, particularly in episode two—honestly. It comes from series star Steve Byrne, a stand-up comedian who could use this series to break through to mainstream success, and Rob Long, a former writer for some of the best seasons of Cheers. Long’s influence is particularly strong on those latter two episodes, both of which make good use of the show’s extended ensemble and have the sort of “ice queen” jokes television hasn’t done well since Lilith Sternin-Crane was knocking around Sam Malone’s bar. The storytelling in these latter two episodes is nothing remarkable, but it’s at least solid, and the jokes come with a pleasing regularity. Not every one of them is funny, but they’re coming at a good clip, and enough of them prompt smiles that it gives the show a bit of momentum. The series also utilizes the multi-camera format well, with the setup-punchline rhythms coming in odd and unexpected ways, here and there.

The ensemble is also solid. Byrne, who plays lawyer-turned-bartender Steve Sullivan, makes an appealing lead, while Dan Lauria is a lot of fun as his dad, Jack. Jodi Long is given a character that should be impossible to play—Steve’s Korean mother, who terrifies everyone with how nothing is ever good enough for her—but finds notes in her that make the predictable gags about how she’s so scary ring true. The same is true for Broadway legend Christine Ebersole, who plays the bar’s “cougar,” but has lots of fun with her character’s freewheeling sexuality. The show hasn’t figured out how to use every one of its characters—and too many of them boil down to “guy who hangs out at the bar”—but by the end of episode three, it’s impressive just how many of them have been given hints of a comedic personality. The one dud is Valerie Azlynn as Steve’s love interest, Melanie, but that stems more from how obligatory the character—who’s with another guy but clearly will end up with Steve at some point—feels, as though she doesn’t rise organically from the situation at all.

Now, obviously, all of these characters are broad types, and nobody’s ever going to accuse the series of breaking new ground or trying anything exciting and new. But there’s value in seeing the old tropes deployed fairly well. The second and third episodes of the show do enough stuff well that it’s easy to think that by the end of season one, the show might have figured out what it wants to be and how to utilize everybody in its extensive ensemble to the best of their abilities. Plus, the show’s blue-collar Pittsburgh setting is different from many of the upper-class comedic settings on TV, something that instantly distinguishes the series. When the bar is briefly shut down in episode two, there’s a very slight sense that it could mean financial ruin for Steve (even if the series doesn’t linger on it). These comedic stakes are a good thing, and the more the show uses them, the better it is. But there’s still the matter of the execrable pilot, which is so bad that it’s hard to imagine anybody watching it and ever wanting to see another episode of the show.

Producing a great sitcom pilot is easily the hardest thing to do in all of television. TV comedy relies so heavily on character interaction and taking time to build to those big laughs that most pilots are ranked on a scale of “shows no promise” to “shows quite a bit of promise,” rather than a scale of “awful” to “great” like drama pilots are. But in recent years, comedy pilots have gotten more and more dire, to the point where I almost hesitate to review them unless I have other episodes to watch. So many sitcom pilots in recent years seem to be constantly shouting, “YOU’RE HAVING A GREAT TIME!” at the camera that they never settle down to tell a coherent story or develop their characters. As such, these pilots over-rely on poorly deployed exposition, characters who are fonts of offensive jokes, and lots and lots of button pushing. (Sullivan & Son’s pilot features three separate rape jokes, in addition to Murray’s racist monologue, for instance.)

The only answer to this is that the networks that produce these comedy pilots spend far more time on the pilot for a series than they do on any later episode. They consider this the best possible way to reel in a large enough audience to keep the show running for seasons to come. The executives work these pilots over and over and over, and they think what you’re going to respond to are the broadest possible jokes, the most offensive monologues, and all of the gags about rape they can throw at you. Long and Byrne have something more on their minds than the pilot would indicate, and even if episodes two and three aren’t all-time classics, they deserved better than the wrong foot that pilot gets the series off on. Talk to any TV writer, and they’ll complain about “note creep”—the sense that more and more executives are offering more and more notes. But that process is most damaging to comedy, and it’s most damaging to comedy pilots. For comedy to work, there needs to be something human and recognizable in it, and this process is designed entirely to strip out anything like that. And that’s ultimately fatal to shows such as this one.

Pilot grade: D
Next two: C+