Straight People Are Like This, and Gay People Are Like This in CBS’s New Sitcom The McCarthys

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Photo: Sonja Flemming/CBS

If this were 1994, The McCarthys would be a groundbreaking sitcom. Set in Boston — or Baaaaah-stun — it's about a sports-obsessed Irish-American family. The patriarch, high-school basketball coach Arthur McCarthy (Jack McGee), hires his gay son Ronny (Tyler Ritter) to be his assistant coach after the previous occupant of the job unexpectedly dies. (Well, maybe not unexpectedly; the recently deceased's name was "Fatty" McFadden, and he was quite fat, you see. This is the source of much mirth.) Complications ensue.

The McCarthys carries itself like a genial sitcom that just wants to have a good time, but its view of pretty much every category of human beings is tediously constricted. Arthur and his two eldest sons, Sean (Jimmy Dunn) and Gerard (Joey McIntyre), bond over sports, sports, sports. The only sister in the clan, Jackie (Kelen Coleman), is into guys, and tangentially into sports as a way to meet guys. Arthur's wife, Majorie (Laurie Metcalf), is still sad over the cancellation of The Closer and watches The Good Wife with Ronny, because Ronny is gay, you see, and — like a woman, I guess we're supposed to think? — he's not really into sports. In the introductory voice-over he lets us know he'd rather be watching The Sound of Music. He calls sports "the sports" as a joke but later calls basketball "the basketball" with a straight face. In one scene, Ronny is pressed by his dad and brothers to name the Miami team that the Celtics are playing on TV, and he admits that he's tempted to say "Sound Machine." (The stereotyping here is two-way: When Ronny compares the early squabbling over who gets the assistant coaching job to the battle over the old man's kingdom in King Lear, Gerard snaps, "We hate plays!")

The McCarthys drives home how unimaginative many traditional sitcoms are about people, especially when they're trying to sum up what men and women and straights and gays are "like." The result often feels hack-y. Straight guys love sports and hate plays and art of any kind, and introspection, and showing feelings; women like shows about women and are eager to please; gay men aren't interested in sports — they'd rather watch The Sound of Music, etc. All comedies deal in stereotype, to some degree, but the better ones at least try to mess with received wisdom and subvert our expectations; this one never quite does.

When Ronny reveals that he's landed a job as a guidance counselor at a high school in Providence, Rhode Island, Marjorie exclaims, "Ronny … you're still gay?" then throws him a party to prove how gay-accepting their Boston neighborhood can be. In the party scene (mom proclaims the room "a gay bar" filled with "men who love men") we're treated to one of the show's rare astute jokes: Ronny's mom has invited the only other gay people she knows, regardless of whether he'll have anything else in common with Ronny. But the joke is ruined when we meet the first guy, a tall, lisping, bespectacled church singer with glasses, a lavender shirt and bow tie, and a fruity drink with a pineapple slice hanging out of it. Then Mom introduces a young, stocky, bearded redhead — sort of a Zach Galifianakis type; we're seeing a lot of those on TV this season — and we think for a moment that we're going to meet a gay character who doesn't Fit the Description, a bear who's into sports, maybe, but no: Turns out the guy isn't actually gay, but came to the party anyway. His sheepish admission is amusing, but not as amusing as a genuine comic insight might've been.

The show takes pains to establish that this is a tightly knit family whose members all live in a one-square-block area, but that doesn't explain how Ronny could be a young gay professional living in a city of more than 600,000 people and feel that he had a better chance of meeting a nice guy if he moved to Providence, a city of 170,000 — unless the main issue is the ignorance of his family, which is a topic the show doesn't really get into, except as a way to set up more weirdly out-of-date jokes. 

There are two moments of wit, which I'll list here to save you the trouble of watching The McCarthys. One occurs in the opening scene, when the family learns during a televised Celtics game that Fatty has died, then collectively agrees to finish the game and order pizza as well, because "Fatty would have wanted it that way." The other moment is in the "gay bar" scene: The church singer informs Ronny that he's "a non-practicing homosexual" because "the church says it's okay to have gay desires as long as you don't act on them." "How's that working out for you?" Ronny asks. "It's a struggle," the man says, then laughs and sips his drink.