This fall, we’ve got so many writers who’ve seen these pilots that we thought getting two takes on each show would be helpful to you. The first review is the “official” TV Club review, and the grade applies to it. But we’ve also found another reviewer to offer their own take on the program. Today, Todd VanDerWerff and Rowan Kaiser talk about Allen Gregory.
Allen Gregory debuts tonight on Fox at 8:30 p.m. Eastern.
Todd: Allen Gregory is trying a bunch of interesting things, but succeeding at very few of them. If it can get a handle on all of its many tones, it could be a very good show. But there’s not a great sense that anybody behind the scenes of the show can quite figure out just what they’re going for, at least based on the pilot, which works far too hard to set up the show’s characters and situations, rather than giving them any room to breathe, and ends up feeling too frantic by half. And where several of Fox’s other animated protagonists—Homer Simpson, Peter Griffin, and Stan Smith, for three—are ridiculous jackasses who garner just as many laughs from being unpleasant and offputting as they do from spouting funny dialogue. But Homer, Peter, and Stan are all spins on the idea of the id unleashed, the guys who are too dumb (or too testosterone-y) to play by society’s rules. Sometimes, we wish we could get away with the shit they pull, and that makes them good characters to build shows around.
The problem with Allen Gregory, then, is that he’s just kind of a douchebag, and not in a way that anybody would particularly want to emulate. We’re meant, at once, to laugh at the kid and to sympathize with him when nobody in his elementary school wants to be his friend. But it’s so obvious why they wouldn’t want to be his friend—and so obvious that none of us in the audience would be terribly taken with him either—that the whole thing crumbles under its own weight. There’s something admirable about building a show around a character who’s aggressively unlikable, but creators Jonah Hill, Andrew Mogel, and Jarrad Paul have given us so few other entry points that the question of why, exactly, we’re supposed to be finding any of this funny arises far too often.
Allen Gregory DeLongpre (voiced by Hill, which is almost certainly the reason Fox bought this pitch) is proudly billed in the show’s promotional materials as “the most pretentious 7-year-old of all time,” and it’s not hard to agree with that. He’s won Tony Awards. He’s a friend to Sandra Bullock. He drinks pinot grigio with his brown bag lunch. The easy way out of this would be to claim that Allen Gregory is deluded, that his need to have everyone refer to him by his first and middle names stem from a certain inability to understand that he’s not really as awesome as he sells himself and he’s just vamping for time until everybody figures out he’s lying to them. But, no, the show presents almost all of this as stuff that’s really happening, as though the creators had stuffed somebody who sniffs about NPR being too corporate into the body of a 7-year-old and decided that was good enough.
Anyway, Allen Gregory has to start attending elementary school with a bunch of other, normal kids, something that simultaneously strikes him as an opportunity and something to be terrified by. He steps into the school, expecting everyone to worship him, and nobody does. Naturally, this fazes the kid, and he spends the rest of the episode trying to figure out how to crack the elementary school code. But since the show’s attempts to earn Allen Gregory sympathy come about almost as the result of whiplash—with scenes where he’s being a dick awkwardly transitioning to scenes where he worried about people liking him—it’s hard to feel too bad for him, even when the sad music is playing. The show wants desperately to manipulate viewers into feeling bad, but it doesn’t have characters worth feeling anything about.
More critically, the creators seem to hate nearly everybody in the cast. When a terrible, embarrassing thing befalls Allen Gregory toward the end of act two, the situation is treated not as something meant to gain our sympathy (though, again, the sad music plays) or as something he had coming, but as something we can laugh at the kid over. Even worse is the treatment of Richard, Allen’s father, voiced by French Stewart. Stewart gives his all to a character that’s basically an animated version of Dean Pelton from Community, but the guy’s delusions and inability to relate to anyone on a human level reduce him to somebody floating around in the ether, unable to connect. (At first, it seems like the show is doing something interesting by having Allen’s parents be a loving gay couple, but it finds a way to undercut that as well, as Richard’s husband Jeremy (Nat Faxon) isn’t who he seems to be.)
The show attempts to garner humor from situations where things get horribly uncomfortable. Both Richard and Allen treat Jeremy like shit for no apparent reason. Allen immediately gets a crush on his 60-something principal, with plenty of scenes of his imagined love affair with her. Jeremy tells a long story about how he came to be Richard’s life partner that suggests some pretty dark back-story. All of this stuff might work in another show—indeed, might work in this show—but it’s all presented as if we’re going to laugh at it simply because of how weird it is. Since none of it’s funny, however, it becomes far easier to ask why we should care about any of it.
There are bright spots here and there. The terrific Joy Osmanski is here as Julie, Allen’s adopted Cambodian sister, who’s not exactly Ms. Popularity herself. Most of the material featuring Julie is good, and she suggests a character that could be an entry point into the world for viewers who aren’t able to get on board with Allen Gregory or Richard. The show is clearly trying to build Jeremy as the kind of voice of reason Allen Gregory can turn to in times of trouble (though it also, curiously, gives him a voice of reason in an older African-American man who turns up late in the episode for no real reason and to make some Hollywood satire-type jokes). And Allen Gregory’s new best friend, Patrick, could turn out to be the kind of sweet-natured foil that’s needed to undercut Allen Gregory’s assholishness.
But every time the show starts to get going—as with a funny running joke about Julie and her friends’ best male friend—it just as quickly descends back into stuff that just sorta happens because somebody thought it would be so weird if that happened. The biggest question the show fails to answer is “Why?” Why is any of this happening? Why does the show seem to rip off Wes Anderson movies all over the place, particularly when those films only point out just how to do stories about pretentious douchebags without isolating the audience? What’s with the score, which is nice but doesn’t really fit the proceedings? Why does the title sequence, which is really good, promise a better, sadder show? It feels like there’s a really interesting show somewhere inside of Allen Gregory, and if given enough time, the creators might be able to find it. But it’s hard to imagine too many people seeing tonight’s pilot and saying, “Yeah. There are some people I want to spend a half-hour with every week.”
Rowan: Allen Gregory may have potential, but right now, it's a misanthropic, sloppy mess. The biggest problem is that it's a collection of disjointed ideas that never really coalesce. The too-smart kid forced to go to public school? This certainly has potential; we've seen it carried out magnificently in Rushmore. A gay couple that operates according in a manipulative, mechanical fashion? Yeah, I could see that being a lot of fun. A kid getting a thoroughly inappropriate, unrequited crush on his elementary school principal? Run with it.
It's just that all of these things are presented without much explanation, or, to put it more bluntly, reason to care. Why does Allen Gregory suddenly get a crush on his principal when he sees her bent over the desk? We've seen nothing so far in the episode that indicates that he's desperately attracted to large women, older women, buzz-cut women, or all three. Maybe it makes sense as a random Family Guy-esque shock gag, but then it becomes the plot of the rest of the episode. And this is the core issue: The characters simply exist, and by-and-large, they're kind of assholes. Fortunately for Allen Gregory, evolving stereotypes into sympathetic characters is one of the main issues early comedy shows face. Unfortunately for Allen Gregory, it's not that pleasant right now, and its hatred of its characters seems to be deep enough that it could be unsalvageable.