When I said last week that the main strength of Unsupervised is its well-drawn main characters, I was mostly thinking of tonight’s episode “Rich Girl.” While the pilot has a lot more ground to cover, “Rich Girl” is more of a standalone model for the future, free to test the core foursome’s identities on this little one-way trip. It’s almost picaresque, the better to mirror the boys’ attention deficits, with a new girl at school launching this adventure that gives us a closer look at Gary’s home life and Joel’s specific brand of hyperactivity while poking more at Darius’ body-image and Megan’s self-image. If I can say this after seeing three episodes, the result is quintessentially Unsupervised: When the happy ending Joel and Gary set their hearts on disintegrates, our preternaturally optimistic heroes immediately move on to the next thing, taking their misfortune in stride and finding a way to be happy with their lot in life.
In all honesty, that’s as tried-and-true a sitcom formula as “will they or won’t they” or “making fun of hipsters,” but it packs a lot more punch at the lower end of the class spectrum. When the Dunphys finally stop picking on each other each week and realize that this crazy family is all they’ve got, it’s insincere not just because it’s earned more by the time limit than the narrative but also because it’s untrue. They’ve got enormous houses full of distraction and cars offering mobility and the Harvard of preschools. Joel and Gary barely have parents.
The cold open naturally drops us off at a smudgy green house with leafless plants, a weird rhythmic moan emanating from within, but it’s just Joel scraping ice off Gary’s freezer. I don’t know if it’s just David Hornsby’s voice or the overuse of PG cuss words, but I’m really starting to love lines like “I’m freakin’ stabbin’ it as hard as I can.” And then a bong enters frame, which really launches our investigation into Gary’s home life. His dad ran out, leaving him with his stepmom Carol (a groggy, grungy Kaitlin Olson), who recently broke up with a guy named Reggie that the boys hate—“He blows his nose in his shirt!”—and now spends all day as a shut-in, sleeping and smoking pot. But the boys, of course, are little motivational speakers. Joel is particularly enchanted with the great shape to Carol’s body, and Gary insists on calling her “Mom” lest he be disrespectful. He also draws pictures of his dad so he can remember what he looks like. I don’t know how long Unsupervised can go, but it won’t be the same show when these guys get rebellious. Maybe they live in a South Parkian timewarp?
Then the episodic stuff begins: the school lunch where we meet Ally, a new girl that Megan’s escorting around (for credit and in the hopes of making a friend or at least looking like she’s made a friend); the rancid drainage ditch that smells like eggs that Joel and Gary enthusiastically dammed up; Ally’s luxurious home; her father Dr. Clark (Dave Foley) driving Joel and Gary home and offering them free dental cleanings; the barbecue the boys prepare in the hopes of setting up Carol with a man worthy of her. The narrative isn’t totally episodic—for instance, it starts and ends at the same place with the same problem—but the way we forget about the title character as soon as we meet her father is really charming. Joel and Gary just love everything too much to focus on anything that’s not in front of them.
That’s also why they’re prone to biting off more than they can chew—see also Sid cooking a lamb that is way too big for the grill—so naturally the barbecue falls apart to the degree that Reggie even shows up. It was never really established why Dr. Clark would be into Carol after he first sees her, but it’s not until the boys reveal their plan to get a new father that he hurriedly flees the backyard. But the boys stand up to Reggie anyway, and while he’s eventually subdued by superhero Sid, the kids get their moral victory.
All the while, Megan’s on this hilarious loneliness-inspired pot spiral, complete with a mirror self taunting her. She spends basically the whole episode alone, even when she’s with the rich girl, but she goes from desperately ingratiating to depressed to creatively self-possessed to realizing she doesn’t need to debase herself to make friends to confessing everything to her parents in true Megan fashion. And Darius continues to defend his chubbiness but reveals—and succumbs to—his addiction to television. He’s still the one most in need of some shading, and his laziness is not helping, but he’s a reliably funny fifth wheel (fourth, actually, but you know what I mean).
After two episodes, I’m eager to see how Unsupervised develops. Despite a strong center, there are still some shallow pieces that I expect to be fleshed out. The visual style is also pretty flat, undistinguished except for the grimy art direction. But the more we come to understand the characters, the more successful the comedy, and the thematic spirit is irresistible. It may not be one of television’s best comedies yet, but it’s clearly coming together.
- I loved how the boys came up with excuses to back out of trying marijuana, especially after their talk about Carol being a pothead and how the rich girl doesn’t need drugs to enjoy life. “You don’t even need ‘em. Nurture your frickin’ body with sunshine instead of pollutin’ it with chemicals, you frickin’ idiot.” A very special episode, indeed.
- Darius on Real Housewives: “Why does everybody watch them shows? It’s just a bunch of fake-tittied white women dressed up throwing birthday parties for each other, fighting over somebody bringing the wrong kind of shrimp.”
- At the creek, Ally draws on her arm and mutters, so quiet it sounds like wind, “There is no hope.”
- When Dr. Clark says dentistry isn’t a big turn-on, Joel is shocked. “What? Hey, you listen to me. You do one of the most important jobs in the world. Without you, we wouldn’t have no smiles.”
- The shot from the inside of Joel’s mouth offers all the disgusting details you expected from the usual wide-shot outlines we get.
- Window into Gary’s world: “I’d love to have a dad who’s a medical dentist…I’d love to have any kind of dad. All I got are these drawings.” Pan to crude drawings of his dad’s face and ripped upper body holding a gun over a pinup of some girl’s bethonged ass.
- Dr. Clark: “Have you been chewing rope?” Joel: “Yeah! I been chewin’ ropes and wires down at the creek. I was frickin’ eatin’ nuts with a squirrel the other day!”