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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Back In The Game

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Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, TV Reviews doesn’t replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.

There’s an itchy feeling of familiarity to Back In The Game. Maggie Lawson’s a single mom who dumped a loser husband, she has a precocious son (Griffin Gluck) who’s getting pushed around at school, and she’s living with her washed-up drunk of a dad (James Caan) who, underneath the gruff exterior, might just have a heart of gold. Together, they’re all gonna play Little League baseball, ostensibly to get Gluck in with a girl he likes, but mostly to re-forge the broken bond between Lawson and Caan, both promising athletes in their youth who have fallen on harder times.

Little League isn’t the most common of sitcom subjects, but Back In The Game still mines from a bunch of established tropes. The team of rejects Lawson assembles is not quite as feisty as the Bad News Bears, but the same outsider spirit prevails (the pilot was directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who scripted the Bad News Bears remake and the far-superior Bad Santa). There’s some gentle mocking of suburbia—including a wealthy drunk lady (played by Lenora Crichlow of the original Being Human) who’s there to point out everyone’s silly foibles—which slots the show in nicely with the rest of ABC’s Wednesday night.

Back In The Game’s creators, the brothers Mark and Robb Cullen, have bounced from genre to genre in their television efforts—from the not-bad gambling comedy Lucky to the pretty-bad NBC crime show Heist—and they’re aiming right for the middle of the road here. They’ve nailed it. Back In The Game isn’t offensively or unusually bad on the scale of Dads, but it’s also not doing much to stand out of the pack. Maggie Lawson, who’s churned away on Psych for the last seven years, has just a smidge of edge to her, but no more than that. Caan, returning to TV as a regular for the first time since Las Vegas, should teach a master class on phoning it in. He’s James Caan, so even when he’s doing nothing, he’s magnetic enough, but it doesn’t help that his character is written as someone who’s largely interested in sitting around, drinking beer, and being unhelpful. The typical sitcom notes of sentimentality that end the episode—revolving around his relationship with his daughter—are expected but feel particularly unearned.

The least exciting part of the pilot is Ben Koldyke, still trying to air out the stench from Work It, as Lawson’s meatheaded, divorced-dad rival—who will also be her love interest for the foreseeable future. She could do a lot better. Koldyke isn’t a bad actor and his arcs on Big Love and How I Met Your Mother seemed to set him up for a promising career, but his vibe is all wrong here—he’s shooting for “appealingly jerky” and forgetting the “appealingly” part.

Koldyke is in charge of the regular Little League team who will serve as foils to Lawson and Caan’s adorable misfits. There are only so many ways that arc can play itself out over the season, and they’re all well-trod ground. It’s hard not to be reminded of the softball scene in Wet Hot American Summer, where Michael Showalter tries to gear up his team of kids by describing the incredible come-from-behind victory that awaits them, which leads to the collective decision that the whole thing sounds trite and hackneyed and doesn’t need to be done again. The same goes for Back In The Game.

Starring: Maggie Lawson, James Caan, Griffin Gluck, Ben Koldyke, Lenora Crichlow
Debuting: Wednesday Sept. 25 at 8:30 p.m. eastern on ABC 
Format: Half-hour comedy
Pilot episode watched for review