“I like the underdog,” Welcome To Flatch’s Shrub (Sam Straley) proudly states two minutes into the show’s premiere, as a way of explaining why he’s eating his cousin Kelly’s (Holmes) discarded cinnamon-powdered mini donuts. (In his metaphor, the unloved treats are the underdogs.) It’s a line that succinctly sums up the lead duo and setting of this Fox comedy, in which a documentary crew jet off to investigate why Americans dream of a simpler life, chancing upon the titular Ohio small town.
Shrub and Kelly are their de facto tour guides as they try to show an overlooked part of rural America, one that’s trying to survive amidst declining economic prospects. (That “underdog” line sort of speaks to broadcast comedies, in general, these days, too. There’s really been no buzzy breakout broadcast sitcom since The Good Place emerged in 2016, although the game is slowly changing with the arrival of ABC’s Abbott Elementary and CBS’ Ghosts.)
Welcome To Flatch isn’t a worthy addition to the primetime slate right away, but it’s not without hope either. The Fox comedy has a notable pedigree, after all: It hails from Sex And The City writer Jenny Bicks, and counts Freaks And Geeks’ Paul Feig as writer and director. While Welcome To Flatch isn’t immediately attention-grabbing or a laugh riot, it begins to find some shape a few episodes in.
Based on BBC’s This Country, the mockumentary is about a group of people who rarely come under the spotlight. Flatch citizens are goofy oddballs, most of whom have barely experienced life outside the town’s limits because they don’t have the means to do so, and Welcome To Flatch tries to put an endearing spin on their troubles both big and small, like lack of resources and social isolation.
Meanwhile, Kelly and Shrub tend to spend the entire day doing nothing valuable, except for one attempt to start an Uber-like ride-sharing service in Flatch, where lots of people don’t have vehicles. What they do love is pulling pranks on the bus driver, drawing graffiti, and poking fun at local minister Father Joe Binghoffer (Seann William Scott). Underneath all that screwing around lies a broken family dynamic, and you understand why they rely on each other completely. Welcome To Flatch mines Straley and Holmes’ onscreen bond to the maximum, making Kelly and Shrub the most fleshed-out characters and the beating heart of the show. Feig and the other directors expertly use the mock-doc aesthetic to subtly capture sincerity and vulnerability in two otherwise loud-mouthed young adults.
The show also crafts a will they/won’t they vibe with Father Joe and his ex, Cheryl (Aya Cash), who moved to Flatch to be with her version of a Hot Priest before he dumped her. She’s now the editor-in-chief of the local newspaper with a subscription of about 534. Unfortunately, Scott and Cash share little to no chemistry so far, although Cash is crushing her performance as Cheryl figures out whether or not she belongs in this community. (Keep an eye out for a fun You’re The Worst reunion with Desmin Borges recurring as a rival editor named, of all things, Jimmy.)
Welcome To Flatch serves up an assortment of other eccentric inhabitants, like Kelly’s overachieving nemesis Nadine (Taylor Ortega), Shrub’s aspiring friend Mickey (Justin Linville), and Joe’s eventual assistant Big Mandy (Krystal Smith). Smith does well with limited material, but none of the supporting characters are developed enough halfway through season one, which makes for a rocky start.
The show nails down its specificities, though: Details like Father Joe’s love of golf and Chris Pine, Big Mandy’s affinity for meatsticks and Garth Brooks, Kelly’s ability to pinpoint what train it is from its whistle add some flair. But the jokes themselves don’t often land. There’s very little in the name of outright comedy, whether it’s one-liners, sight gags, or even the classic “look to the camera”-style made popular by Jim Halpert, Ben Wyatt, and now Abbott’s Gregory Eddie. The farce is an extremely slow burn (think the demanding first seasons of The Office and Parks And Recreation, shows Feig also directed). Fox is probably launching the first seven episodes to binge on Hulu on its linear premiere day for this reason.
Much of the show’s focus, then, is on establishing Flatch as one of the main characters. (Yes, yes, how very SATC of Bicks.) The setting is quite drab, akin to Letterkenny or early Schitt’s Creek, a small town is rife with bizarre competitions like skillet throwing and scarecrow designing, as well as legendary myths passed down from generations. Peculiar events let Shrub, Kelly, and the rest of the gang flourish in surprising ways, but the show is determined to be all heart to a degree that comes off as a little forced. Welcome To Flatch roughly clicks around episode six (“RIP Cynthia”), though, by honing in on the whole ensemble during an absurd funeral plot. It’s here that the show finally finds something of a comedic groove.
The beginning of each episode notes particular problems plaguing the town—insufficient medical care, bad infrastructure, real issues—and while Welcome To Flatch isn’t necessarily searching for answers to those problems, it does provide a unique (and heartfelt) enough snapshot, despite some stumbles along the way.