“And what qualifies you to come up with these rules anyway, Missy?”
“I went to Harvard Business School.”
“I never heard of it.”
“You’ve never heard of Harvard?”
“Oh Harvard?! I thought you said Barnyard! I can’t hear a thing today—that’s a great school.”
I don’t think Fox’s new ensemble comedy, The Cool Kids, is going to make much of an impact culturally, and if it does somehow manage to survive to a second season, it’ll quickly be relegated to the status of “just another network sitcom.” (Be wary of my network television opinions, however; I didn’t know CBS’s Mom existed until last week.)
Still, when I happened upon last week’s series premiere, I was more than just pleasantly surprised—I was legitimately laughing. The pilot jumps right in: while three best friends are dealing with the loss of their “wildboy” fourth, Jerry, at breakfast, Vicki Lawrence’s Margaret usurps his seat. Pranks, hijinks and keggers ensue, and by the end of the show, everyone is all good and basically best friends. On the surface, it’s typical sitcom fare, but once you get past the show’s bright colors and manic tone, there’s an odd profundity to its jokes—fear of death, fear of being forgotten, fear of being left out. It’s not something you usually see, save for some “very special episodes” here and there, and that gives it the kind of weight most multi-cam shows don’t have. (For another example of this, see David Alan Grier’s gone-too-soon The Carmichael Show).
For a wacky, frenetic network sitcom, everyone’s playing things surprisingly cool. With the exception of Grier’s overly cranky Hank and (co-creator of the show) Charlie Day’s handyman character Chet, the actors perform with a sense of nuance, most notably Martin Mull’s Charlie, who’s basically playing a more toned-down, lucid version of Creed from The Office. A lot of my favorite lines in the pilot were the outrageous lies he’d tell to the other members of the group, who seem to have completely given up on calling out their friend. (“I’ve seen a man’s heart explode once, it’s not pretty… It came out! Way out!”)
Some of the writing is painfully antiquated (“Only a gay man can hit on a woman these days!”), though to be fair, it’s a multi-camera sitcom about antiques on FOX. It’s understandable they’d hold some less-than-ideal opinions. If they can curb their banter and address the characters’ unlikability in a It’s Always Sunny-esque direction, it’d really help sell the show’s self-awareness; right now, it’s too hard to tell.
As unlikable and outdated as they can be, everyone on this show is still normal and recognizable, which is the most comforting thing about it. No one is unrealistically attractive, playing an age or occupation that we as an audience know they’re not suited for. (At first, David Alan Grier does seem a bit young to have entered a retirement community, but the show makes it clear that even he has his reasons for being there.) I’m not taking anything away from the show’s stellar cast, they’re all incredibly talented and giving way better performances than they should be—it’s just that no one is capital “H” Hot, allowing us to suspend our disbelief just a bit more than usual.
Another refreshing thing The Cool Kids does well is its portrayal of aging. Too many comedies are about how diseased and infirm the elderly are, and while it can be a sad, sore subject, they’re often forgotten as actual people. The Cool Kids gets some mileage out of those kinds of jokes, but it doesn’t forget the basic humanity of its characters. Call me a weirdo, but I like a show where the old people are able-bodied, horny, and just want to party.
Like its ironic name, there’s nothing cool about the The Cool Kids. It’s a fairly conventional network sitcom in the late stages of the medium, one last trip to the multicam well before it inevitably dries up completely. It’s a thoroughly competent show, though, one made by seasoned pros and that doesn’t flagrantly disrespect its cast or audience, and that has to be worth something.
Yusef Roach is Paste’s Assistant Comedy Editor and the cohost of the podcast Death is Imminent. He’s on Twitter @yusefroach.