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.
ABC has yet to announce an airdate for the pilot of Super Fun Night. For some series, this decision would be a panic move, one that would inspire no confidence from viewers. For Super Fun Night, it’s probably the right call. The series’ second episode—which will air as its series premiere—isn’t a particularly terrific episode of television, but it more or less tells a coherent story and doesn’t stop seemingly every five seconds for a wacky cutaway gag or montage, neither of which was true of the pilot. Indeed, there are some actually funny gags in this second episode, and even if it all culminates in a big sing-off that strains to conjure up some of the Pitch Perfect magic from series star Rebel Wilson, there are the bare bones of something very like a TV show here.
The problem with judging Super Fun Night based only on two episodes—one of which may never see the light of day—is that it wants so badly to be a hangout sitcom, and hangout sitcoms are notoriously hard to judge after two or three or even 10 episodes. A hangout sitcom is all about vibe, about letting the audience get to know the characters and their relationships over time, so the jokes can flow freely and easily from the interplay between those characters. There are the barest hints of a premise here—something about how Wilson and her two best friends vow to stop being so lame and start having super fun nights, which more or less means “start leaving the house”—but the real appeal is meant to be watching as Wilson and her friends become like friends to the viewers at home.
There are a few things in Super Fun Night’s corner in this regard. In particular, Wilson’s character is allowed to be earnest and enthusiastic and intelligent, rather than the sort of irritating nitwit it would be easy to let a character like this devolve into. (Numerous sitcoms have taken the over-enthusiastic girl and made her into the butt of the joke; Super Fun Night doesn’t do that, at least not yet.) Wilson also plays a woman smart and capable enough to be promoted at her law firm; while the super-competent businesswoman who can’t handle her personal life is an old trope, Wilson puts enough of a spin on it that it makes sense that her main love interest, played by Kevin Bishop, seems at least vaguely interested in her.
The other main thing working in Super Fun Night’s favor is how firmly it situates its viewpoint behind the sorts of people who don’t normally have TV shows made about them. In some ways, its mission statement is to be the Freaks And Geeks of hangout sitcoms. Here are the homebodies and wallflowers, the less conventionally attractive women, the weird dudes who get excited about strange stuff. Don’t they deserve to have a sitcom about them, too? And under the tutelage of former 30 Rock writer John Riggi—who will act as showrunner and writes the second episode—there’s a vague sense of how this could all work. The jokes are occasionally dead-on, even the cutaway gags, and Riggi has at least something of an idea of how to make Wilson and her compatriots at once ridiculous and worth rooting for.
Unfortunately, the show, while more viable as an actual TV series and not a collection of random gags, is now slightly boring. At least the Super Fun Night of the pilot was really, really strange and kind of off-putting. The show as depicted in the second episode just doesn’t have much in the way of meat on its bones. Wilson gets into a pointless competition with the beautiful Kate Jenkinson, Bishop the ostensible prize (though he obviously won’t choose for many episodes). Best friends Lauren Ash and Liza Lapira are mostly undefined and wasted on the sidelines of that competition. There are attempts to appeal to whatever core audience Wilson brings with her, both by having her do big, broad physical comedy and by having her sing. It all feels very safe. That’s an improvement over catastrophic, but it’s weirdly more disappointing.
In the end, whatever ABC has here feels curiously like Fox’s The Mindy Project. Is it a bad television show? Not really. But it also feels like an unformed television show, at least right now. Like that series, this is one that is built so thoroughly around a personality that it seems like someone forgot to fill the actual show in around the edges of that personality. Wilson is an appealing actress and comedian, and the idea of her as a TV star makes a lot of sense. But instead of coming up with a show, then having Wilson take the starring role, ABC (after former Super Fun Night developer CBS before it) came up with the personality it wanted at the center of a show, any show, then threw a bunch of half-formed ideas at a wall. Super Fun Night is the kind of show that could work with enough time. It certainly has the cast and crew to pull that trick off. But figuring out what this show is will take time and a lot of work, and it’s unlikely to find enough viewers willing to give it ratings room to maneuver.