At this point, there aren’t many new places a family sitcom can go. Life In Pieces takes up the challenge posed by the seemingly insatiable need for network comedies about extended, palatably dysfunctional families by getting moderately adventurous with form, a choice just bold enough to enliven its familiar elements while not veering too far from what CBS no doubt hopes is the lucrative Modern Family sweet spot.
Announcing itself with the legend “One big family. Four short stories. Every week,” Life In Pieces might wear its gimmick on the dust jacket, but, in doing so, it also takes some of the sting out of the top-heavy exposition of most pilots, and frames its quartet of predictable sitcom setups as the wafer-thin slices of reality such plots are. By introducing its model of the sitcom family, Life In Pieces recognizes the limitations of the form it’s working in—and, in the first episode anyway, gets out of each before it wears out its welcome.
Even more than its structural gambit, the show benefits from an unusually and uniformly strong cast, all of whom have the comic chops to add bright touches to the broad strokes from which their characters are drawn. From the top down, there’s Dianne Wiest and James Brolin as the loving, oft-befuddled Joan and John Short, who still harbor their grown son Matt (The Newsroom’s Thomas Sadoski) in their cosy, suburban home, for reasons not yet explained. (The quick-hit storytelling here leaves a lot of blanks to be filled in, a refreshing style which, nonetheless, leaves a reviewer making his best guess at times.) Daughter Heather (Breaking Bad’s Betsy Brandt) is married to Tim (Legit and Veep all-star Dan Bakkedahl) and jittery about her eldest son Tyler (Niall Cunningham) heading off to college. (Meanwhile, middle daughter Samantha gets her period and precocious youngest Sophia finds out about Santa Claus). Colin Hanks’ Greg and Zoe Lister Jones’ Jen add to the Short clan in the first episode with the delivery of their first baby, while Matt’s contribution is the introduction of new girlfriend Colleen (Enlisted’s Angelique Cabral) who, fortuitously for us (if not for Matt) is still awkwardly sharing a house with heartbroken and weird ex-fiancee Chad (Jordan Peele, in what, with any luck, will be a recurring role).
That’s a lot of interrelationship to lay down in 21 minutes, but what’s freeing about Life In Pieces’ structure is that there’s no hurry to connect every dot. I also review Married, which, while following a more A-story/B-story blueprint, is similarly interested in exposition only as it relates to the plot at hand. Here, the structure works more like sketch comedy, and, as the show goes on, the idea of the Short family being shaded in by these accumulated small stories is unusual enough to tease at something fuller than the average sitcom. (It’s hardly Winesburg, Ohio in scope, but you have to wonder if audiences used to being spoon-fed their entertainment will demand something even more conventional.)
As to the pilot’s four individual stories (all introduced by interstitial titles as “story one,” “story two,” and so on), each follows a familiar sitcom formula, yet zips along pleasurably thanks to the cast and a sprinkling of sharp lines and odd touches. When co-workers Matt and Colleen both realize that their respective home situations are unsuited to their first-date tryst, it’s broad stuff, certainly (Colleen seems especially blithe in thinking that the clingy Chad will bug off so she can have sex with Matt on the living room couch). But Sadoski and Cabral have a warm comic chemistry that’s sexy in how obviously they’re right for each other. (“Wow, you guys have already got a banter,” quips the resentful Chad, reluctantly and incompletely leaving them alone.) Peele (in Key & Peele, Childrens Hospital, and, essentially everything he does) is a master of imbuing sketch characters with a potent comic immediacy, and while Chad weeping while stroking his poodle Princess and spying on the couple is broad, his attempt to threaten Matt comes complete with a desperation (“That’s how I talk now”) that isn’t. (“He’s harmless. He went to Vassar,” reassures Cabral.)
The baby plot is a staple, complete with panicky, weepy new parents, a husband dealing with six weeks of no sex, and the fact that those baby cribs are so darn hard to assemble, but Hanks and Jones, too, weave their way around the clichés enough make Jen and Greg’s predicaments snap with original energy. They also have most of the episode’s “risky” (for a CBS sitcom) material, their doctor-mandated experiments with an ice-filled surgical glove, and Jen’s horror at a common but little-mined-for-comedy birthing experience letting the actors go for big laughs. (”They should lose their license, I’d never held a baby before yesterday,” marvels the mortified Jen after she’s released from the hospital.) The college visit, too, is mainly a showcase for Brandt and Bakkedahl to define their characters’ relationship in a few silly but deft moves. She’s the protective one (embarrassing her son with the old “mom cleans off your face with spit” move and making him a sandwich for his big night), and he’s the dorky dad (telling an overly revealing sex story as a cautionary tale to the boy), but they both manage to lay the groundwork for their relationship nicely. Bakkedahl, especially, finds new colors in the oddball dad type, making Tim refreshingly unapologetic and enthusiastic, while Brandt brings her signature comic intensity to Heather. Everyone here is variously silly and prone to big physical comedy setpieces (cue Tyler waking up drunk in a washing machine)—but no one’s stupid. Again, it’s refreshing.
It’s in the fourth story—where patriarch Brolin has hatched a 70th birthday party plan where everyone gives him a sneak preview of their eulogies—that Life In Pieces overplays its hand. It’s not that John getting stuck in a coffin is a terrible gag to end on (the family ends up wheeling the thing across the street to the Jiffy Lube for help). It’s that, before then, he’s stuck delivering the show’s mission statement. Mistily apologizing for his admitted dumb idea for a funeral home party, John tells his gathered clan, “Life is about these moments, these pieces of time. They flash by but they stay in your heart forever.” Intoned over flashback clips of moments from the show we’ve just watched to hammer the theme home, it’s a heavy-handed and too on-the-nose summation of what had been a more nuanced introduction to what Life In Pieces is going for.
In execution, Life In Pieces looks poised to build up the world of the Shorts like a series of comic sketches. While hardly as ambitious an undertaking, there’s a hint of Louie in there, where the main story is added to in isolated, well-realized touches rather than conforming to one standard narrative. To toss out another clear influence, Life In Pieces, with its large cast of extended family members glancing off each others’ stories, has what Buster Bluth might call “a smack” of Arrested Development in its comedy DNA. Again, seeing echoes of other, so-far much better shows in the mix doesn’t mark Life In Pieces as the most original show around, but its cast and its storytelling style do suggest that it’s got the potential to build up its world into something uniquely its own.
- The family’s name is “Short,” so these are “Shorts,” or “Short stories.” Just so we get that out of the way.
- Tim, oversharing with Tyler about his first time: “She looks me right in the eye, and you know what she says?” “Never tell this to your son?”
- As Erik Adams notes in his pre-air review, there’s a danger that Life In Pieces could run through all possible stories pretty quickly. I mean, there are a lot of sitcom clichés, but most shows stretch them out over a longer period of time.
- John is introduced with an “old people can’t work a remote” joke, but his description of his favorite Steven Seagal movie is some stellar dad work: “Not the one where he kills everybody to save the trees, but the one where he dislocates all their shoulders.”
- All the “destroyed vagina” jokes are pretty standard (if energetically delivered by Hanks and Jones), but Hanks’ Fargo co-star Susan Park does an expert buildup to her “don’t look down there” gag.
- “I wanna have another baby.” “I don’t know if we should have another kid since we’re hiding from the ones we have.”
- Giselle Eisenberg is an accomplished young actress already, but the “overly precocious little kid” character wears thin pretty quickly.
- Wiest will no doubt get more to do as Joan, but, finally fed up with her husband’s birthday plan, she snaps a great, “This was a jerky idea—jerk!”
- Hi gang. I’ll be starting you off on Life In Pieces, before handing off to Joshua Alston once football scheduling stops messing with his life. Anyway, doing these reviews piecemeal seems to make a certain amount of sense. I’m certain that’s why we’re doing it.