Growing Up Fisher S01E01: "Pilot"

If every show on television was like NBC's new comedy Growing Up Fisher, we'd all be greeting each other with a tip of the hat and a "Beautiful day, isn't it?" while whistling a merry tune and raking the leaves or acting out a Normal Rockwell painting. Such is Growing Up Fisher's infectiously positive and can-do 'tude. But we live in a world where murder is almost legal and screaming children smoke pot, drag race, and terrorize gated communities, so Growing Up Fisher's upbeat energy makes for a truly escapist half-hour that happens to be about as believable as Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Is that a bad thing? No, of course not, but unrelenting happy thoughts don't automatically make a comedy good.

Growing Up Fisher is a family comedy like other family comedies, except the patriarch, Mel (J.K. Simmons) is blind. That's what TV is working with now. "Except he's blind." It's such an important part of the story that the pilot episode wouldn't let us forget it; we saw Mel chainsawing down a tree (with safety goggles!), parallel parking, and riding a bike down the street. Oh, and just for good measure, several characters repeatedly pointed out that Mel is still blind, courtesy of "Like that time when..." anecdotes. Growing Up Fisher is told from the adult voiceover perspective—as narrated by executive producer Jason Bateman—of Mel's 11-year-old Henry, who idolizes his dad in a sweet and endearing way. And why wouldn't he? Mel is an indomitable go-getter with more forward momentum than the Kool-Aid Man, and it's Henry and Mel's relationship that makes the show tick.

But there's one raincloud putting a damper on things, and that's the dissolving marriage between Mel and his probably-too-young-for-him wife Joyce (Jenna Elfman). We witnessed the pair try to break the news of their divorce to Henry, and Henry's response to the situation was to be jealous that Mel got a new guide dog—instead of, you know, "My parents don't love each other anymore." Divorce is supposed to turn children into insatiable nymphomaniacs or frequenters of a pharmaceutical buffet, but Henry put a smile on his face and rented his dad an apartment because it was something that the dog couldn't do. Perhaps Growing Up Fisher, which is apparently based in part on series creator DJ Nash's real life, is already repressing the psyche-destroying effect that divorce can have on a child who's just coming of age. Or maybe the idea of divorce was just too sad for this safeguarded series. 

I don't blame Growing Up Fisher and Nash for bringing a little positivity into this world. In fact, I think it makes more sense to criticize a show like The Walking Dead for being mired in depression than it does to denounce the opposite, sunshine-filled path that Growing Up Fisher is taking. But isn't at least somewhat fair to deduct points from a show for being too happy? Pain and suffering build character just as much as joy and triumph; it's the yin and yang of storytelling, and Growing Up Fisher is all yin. That makes the show a pleasant watch, but does nothing to suggest it will ever be great, or anything more than a weekly Hallmark Channel short film. 

We could debate whether eternal happiness has a place on television forever and ever and never agree because some people dig relentless positivity and others don't and that's just how people are, but one thing we can hopefully see eye-to-eye on is that Joyce (Elfman) appears to be Growing Up Fisher's weakest link. Joyce came out of the marriage with a horrible case of Young-Girl Syndrome; she's a sitcom trope, a mom who's trying to recapture her youth mostly by embarrassing her daughter and attempting to be cool. Joyce tried on the same pants as her daughter Katie (who was mostly invisible in the pilot), smoked e-cigs and then graduated to a corncob pipe, lifted her boobs and spanked her own ass, and probably set up an appointment to get a tramp stamp, too. It didn't work for Elfman, who is capable of so much more despite her recent television track record. It's no wonder Parker Posey dropped out of this show; her multi-dimensional arc on Louie would have been undone if she'd stuck around to play the simple Joyce. 

Another problem with Growing Up Fisher is that it appears to favor sweetness over humor. The pilot wasn't very funny, but it also avoided making too many jokes, thereby lessening the chance of delivering some stinkers. So good job, show! Not many bad jokes! But not many jokes at all. What's more, sweetness—especially when it's manipulative, and all TV sweetness is manipulative, that's the truth!—is not a substitute for good old-fashioned knee-slappers and rib-ticklers, so it seems that Growing Up Fisher is focused more on telling upbeat family stories than on being a real comedy. It'll fit perfectly within NBC's "broad comedy" mission, thanks to its apparent aim of attracting viewers by not offending any of them. But that's probably the worst thing a comedy can do. Comedies that are "just fine" in the eyes of many viewers don't have the same legs as a comedies that are loved and loathed in equal doses. No one wants to watch co-meh-dy. 

Of course, all the normal pilot caveats apply here ("Maybe the characters will develop more fully in later episodes," "Comedy pilots are always bad because they're dragged down by exposition," and "How the hell am I supposed to tell where this is going from just 22 minutes?"), but based on what I've seen, Growing Up Fisher will be another forgettable failed NBC comedy that wasn't terrible, but also wasn't good. And without an honest emotional connection to the characters other than what we've been told to feel, the show's biggest problem isn't blindness, it's blandness.

What'd you think of the series premiere? Will you be back for Episode 2?

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