Because I’m sick of films and TV shows that make men who can’t grow up seem sweet and harmless rather than pathetic and loathsome, I expected to hate Guys With Kids, the new NBC sitcom from executive producer Jimmy Fallon. My animosity faded after about five minutes, when it became clear that the show wasn’t terribly interested in the kids. They’re just warm-blooded props, by turns cute, irritating, and irrelevant.
The three main characters — father-of-four Gary (Anthony Anderson), married new dad and wiseass Nick (Zach Cregger), and recently divorced Chris (Jesse Bradford) — spend a lot of screen time with Baby Björns strapped to their chests, alternately praising and griping about their children and significant others, but they’re not there to prove (or score) any sociological points. Goofy and trivial as it is, this is an actor’s showcase, one that could have easily been titled Friends, Phase Two. Not that it’s a well-oiled farcical machine like Friends, mind you — not yet, anyway. But it has that sort of light, peppy feeling. Its true subject is actors wringing as many laughs as they can from whatever stupid complications the writers devise. (This pilot includes a guest appearance by Kareem Abdul Jabbar as himself; go big or go home, as they say.)
The weak link is Jesse Bradford’s Chris. It’s not the actor’s fault; I doubt Jack Lemmon circa 1960 could have made Chris’s relationship with his petty, controlling bitch of an ex-wife Sheila (Erinn Hayes of Worst Week) anything less than regrettable. The pilot’s A-plot finds Sheila insisting that Chris personally watch their child while she goes on a date (with Kareem Abdul Jabbar!) on the very same night that Chris wanted to go out on his own date for the first time since the divorce. There’s comic potential in Chris’s lame attempts to subcontract sitting duties and contrive to fool Sheila into thinking he’s still at home, but Sheila’s robotic meanness kills the laughs. She’s the only important character on Guys with Kids who lacks even two dimensions. The resolution of her and Chris’s story is mildly amusing, but all in all, it’s a drag. It makes the sitcom’s sweetness and light seem like cover for the type of pro-bro propaganda that I hoped this show would be evolved enough to avoid, or at least subvert.
The other couples are more humanely drawn. Because they make emotional and psychological sense, the chirpy sitcom banter goes down more smoothly. Nick is quick-witted, one of those characters that always seems to be narrating whatever’s happening around him, but his wife Emily (Jamie Lynn-Sigler) isn’t a dishrag laughing at his jokes. She’s a bit of a kook, and the script gives Sigler some amusing bits involving a knockout black dress that pay off with a scene of real warmth. Anthony Anderson’s Gary and his wife Marny (Tempestt Bledsoe — Vanessa from The Cosby Show; go ahead, feel old) are the comic heart of the show. Anderson has always had a flair for slow-burn comedy that erupts into hysterics; casting him as a father of four was a casting slam-dunk. Bledsoe, thankfully, isn’t stuck playing the saintly wife–mom. Her Marny is a funny, tough woman with palpable life force, someone you can imagine existing in a world without a laugh track. At the end of the pilot, Marny and Gary have an exhausted bathroom flirtation (with kids misbehaving on the other side of the locked door) that’s almost Cosby Show–worthy. If Guys With Kids can pull off at least one scene a week with that same level of charm, it’ll grow up into a sitcom worth watching.