Joel McHale is a good actor, but he can't play a 70-year old man who's been frozen in ice for 20 years and has only recently been thawed out. That's not exactly his character on The Great Indoors — he's playing Jack Gordon, a 40-something correspondent for a roughing-it magazine that's about to go digital only — but this new sitcom from producer Mike Gibbons (Tosh .0, The Late Late Show) makes him seem like a primordial macho man who doesn't understand the strange ways of modern society, even though he's probably been filing his stories on a laptop and emailing them to his editors since at least the first Bush presidency. But of course this is CBS, the network with the oldest average audience in television, so an exceptional and often odious degree of pandering is to be expected. And wow, does this series deliver. The Great Indoors is a generation-gap comedy on par with the sitcoms of the late 1960s, which presented the counterculture as clueless stoners who just wanted to wear their hair long and whine about peace and love.
When Jack visits the magazine's editorial offices after a long spell out in the field, he learns that his publisher, Roland (Stephen Fry), is about to fold the print edition and go digital only. The digital operation is run, of course, by millennials, a bunch of narcissistic whiners with hurt feelings who can't interact with the world without going through an iPhone camera or an app first. Jack is the kind of guy who thinks the word "app" is hilarious in and of itself. His co-worker, Clark (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), introduces himself as an "online content curator," which Jack calls "an obviously made-up job title." Then Clark introduces Jack to another co-worker, Emma (Christine Ko), who has a completely affectless voice with a touch of vocal fry and doesn't even look up from her computer as she says, "Oh my God, you're a legend, I'm so glad you're here," and thinks that when Jack says he's about to fly to Patagonia that he means the clothing outlet ("There's one right down the street"). Jack is presented as a dinosaur of a manly man surrounded by soft-bellied whiners. This is a specific kind of 21st-century American male flattery, characteristic of an era in which increasing numbers of men in Westernized countries never get anywhere close to hard physical labor, and whose experience of physical jeopardy is largely confined to The Walking Dead, video games, and superhero films, yet adopt the manner and language of roughnecks or battle-hardened combat soldiers; but it's doubly silly airing on CBS, which has built its business model around appealing to the grandparents of the people it's mocking here. There are also jokes about participation trophies, safe spaces, and selfie sticks, to make sure all the bases are covered.
It probably goes without saying that Jack will need to learn to work with these infernal kids, with their jalopies and their rumble seats and their flagpole sitting and their goldfish swallowing — sorry, those are youth-culture clichés from nearly a century ago, but same difference — and in time they reach an uneasy détente, though Jack still has trouble adapting to this strange modern world of interconnectedness and increased discussion of progressive values, because he's a Real Man, you see. The second episode finds him bewildered by the concept of dating apps; at one point he brags/laments that he's bagged women "on all seven continents and one submarine, where I almost joined the Mile Deep club." (I'd like to see a flashback episode about the time he got laid in Antarctica; maybe they're saving it for sweeps?) "What is it with these kids?" Jack laments to his best friend, a bartender played by Chris Williams (Stranger Things, Californication). "They think their most private things are everybody's business." If the line were delivered by, say, James Caan, rather than the longtime host of The Soup, it might have a prayer of landing, but here, on a sitcom that at times comes very close to becoming a generational version of a minstrel show, it just seems bizarre. A single man in his 40s has never tried online dating? Not even on a desktop computer?
I'm making a shallow and essentially flat show sound more insidious than it is. But the traditional three-camera sitcom, while old-fashioned compared to newer storytelling forms, has so much more potential than this series — and too many other network attempts at half-hour comedy — makes it seem. The show's lone saving grace is Stephen Fry as Roland. Fry's interactions with Susannah Fielding — who plays Brooke, Jack's boss and sorta-love interest — are sweet, and Fry's delivery often finds hints of an actual life within a character written as a more educated, older, British version of Jack's Unfrozen Caveman Heterosexual. Talking to Jack about his own difficulty reentering the dating world after becoming single, Roland says, "When I was at my lowest point, I remembered that I had something timeless which would always make me attractive.” Fry pauses just the right amount of time before continuing, "And that..." — even longer pause — "... was money, and lots of it." I wish this sitcom had been built around his character; the jokes would make a lot more sense in context, plus we'd get to have more Stephen Fry, which is never a bad thing.