Chris Meloni is a sneakily good actor. He was equally convincing as Elliot Stabler on Law and Order: SVU, as the colonel in Man of Steel, as the vicious schemer Chris Keller on Oz, and as Roman Zimojic on True Blood. Now he can add another “born to play it” role: Jack Dunlevy, the patriarch of a suburban family on Fox’s Surviving Jack, a series that’s not as impressive as its lead actor’s performance.
Jack, an oncologist, is an unconventional dad who speaks softly but kicks much ass. He never met a problem he couldn’t untangle. He has a quip for every occasion. His wife, Joanne (Rachel Harris), adores him, as do we. Even though she’s starting law school and leaving Jack to parent solo for the first time in his life, not for a second do we believe that Jack isn’t up to the task. He’s not your typical bumbling sitcom dad who needs an instruction manual to apply a Band-Aid. There’s a touch of the soldier’s mentality, or the gym coach’s, to the way Meloni carries himself in this part. He plays Jack as confident but not vain. The guy makes a living with his mind, but he can still tap his inner bruiser and intimidate his kids for their own sake. And he’s funny. Catching his sex-crazed teenage son Frankie (Connor Buckley) with girlie magazines, Jack informs him, “You will not have sex with a woman who looks like that ever in your life.” No matter who you are — a blood relation, or a hang-around neighborhood kid — Jack has his eye on you, and he has your best interests at heart. Problems arise, and you know Jack will eventually solve them. “I got this,” is his anachronistic catchphrase.
Can Surviving Jack survive in the long-term, without finding a way to make Jack vulnerable, even flummoxed or reactionary or cruel at times, without selling out his square-jawed do-gooder energy? That could be tricky. I think it’s necessary, otherwise Surviving Jack will feel like a sitcom that aired in the wrong decade — and a just-okay one at that. I got through the first couple of episodes of Surviving Jack and thought, That was amusing, but is there anything more to it?
To be fair, though, simplicity might be the main reason Fox gave it the green light: For all its frank language and situations, and despite the fact that Jack often swaggers like a non-psycho kid brother of Robert De Niro’s character in This Boy’s Life, the series has more in common with oldies like Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best than with most network sitcoms on the air today. It could easily be a CBS sitcom aimed squarely at “heartland” audiences — the kind of show that people under 30 never watch, but that parents and grandparents never miss. The tone says: Life can be sad and strange, and we make lots of mistake as we live it, but if you’re brave and good, you’ll make it through just fine.
It may surprise no one to learn that Surviving Jack is co-created and written by Justin Halpern, creator of $#*! My Dad Says. The source material is kind of a prequel to $#*! , a memoir of Halpern’s teenage years titled I Suck at Girls. Like $#*! My Dad Says, it pretends to be a hilariously blunt look at family life, but it’s actually super-flattering to the patriarch. Halpern treats his father the way Cameron Crowe treated his mother in his memoir-movie Almost Famous, making him seem eccentric and brusque and often crude, but always a pillar of strength and virtue, and rarely wrong. It’s the memoirist version of you answering a job application question about your biggest fault with, “I’m a perfectionist.” As in the Fox sitcom, the book’s version of Jack is such a wit that I wouldn’t have been surprised if I Suck at Girls had ended with the teenage narrator stumbling upon a hidden passageway that led to a secret radio room in the cellar of his house, where he discovered a fallout shelter filled with kidnapped comedy writers feeding his dad material through a radio earpiece. (When the book’s hero calls long distance to tell his father that he’s just spent two hours in the Louvre, the old man quips, “Nice. Two thousand years of priceless works of art and you bust through it in two hours. Eat shit, Da Vinci.”)
Father (profanely) knows best, no doubt. Whether Fox does, too, is an open question.