John Mulaney’s sitcom premieres this Sunday, and while fans and critics across the board agree that Mulaney himself is a talented and likable writer/performer, between the endless Seinfeld comparisons (in reviews and the actual show) and the series’ long evolution from an NBC pilot to Fox series, he’s had to face an unusually harsh response from TV critics over the past few weeks. So far, Mulaney has been called a “contrived, airless comedy” (Huffington Post), “something a dutiful student might have produced for his final project in his ‘Tropes and Themes in the 1990s Sitcom’ class” (Time), and labeled doomed to fail by The Hollywood Reporter: “There is no saving a show this heinous.”
Mulaney’s traditional multi-cam format filmed before a live studio audience marks an unusually retrogressive choice for Fox (though it remains a common model at the old people-targeted CBS and earns them truckloads of money) and hasn’t received a single glowing review from TV critics. Time’s review goes on to call Mulaney’s old sitcom nostalgia “charming” but lacking “an original voice, organic character relationships or near enough laughs.” HitFix agrees, calling it “an unfortunate reminder that the multi-cam format is an unforgiving beast that can swallow you whole if you aren’t constantly feeding it jokes.” Variety said that “the show proves inordinately flat” aside from the Seinfeld influence and is “punctuated by a few moments of silliness that, ultimately … still add up to less than nothing.”
And while the jokes, pacing, and lack of cohesion in the multi-generational cast also plays a part in the unexcited response so far – HitFix described Elliott Gould’s performance as “just picking up a paycheck; his presence never makes sense” – at the crux of the backlash is not so much the questionable future of John Mulaney’s show (his standup segments got some points from critics), but that of live sitcom laughter in a world where single-cam has become synonymous with what critics deem smart, unique, risky TV comedy. Speaking to The New York Times, Mulaney executive producer Lorne Michaels (who ran a ‘90s multi-cam TGIF-style parody sketch on SNL last week) admitted that multi-cams feel “less contemporary” but get more recognition than single-cam shows: “There’s something comforting about hearing laughter. It’s an American form.” Michaels also noted that since the rise of single-cam, multi-cam has become “sort of fringe. It looks in a certain way like a bold choice.”
Mulaney seems very confident with that choice in every interview he’s done to promote the show (“I understand things seeming audibly out of touch, with people not having heard live audience laughter in a long while”), but most critics agree that the stale sitcom format doesn’t serve his sensibility well; in other words, don’t approach Sunday’s Mulaney premiere with the expectation that it will cleverly subvert or reinvent its multi-cam restrictions. “There is no meaningful distinction between canned laughter and the manipulated, required laughter of a studio audience. They both laugh at every bad joke,” Slate warns. Maybe it’s because critics know Mulaney’s standup, his work on SNL, or his always-hilarious appearances as the tuna-loving elder George St. Geegland on Kroll Show – they know he’s an original talent – that to see him dropped in a generic Big Bang-style TV universe with mandatory laughs rather than the more innovative (and comedy nerd-approved) world of Broad City and Louie is jarring at best, and unwatchably sad at worst.
Complaints aside, major network sitcoms need some time to find their voice, which is a key point Lorne Michaels stressed with NYT after his viewing of the first dozen episodes: “There will be growing pains. The more recent episodes are way better, head and shoulders over when we began. But the cast is good, and John is enormously likable.” Rolling Stone, Grantland, and The A.V. Club are all holding judgment until the series has enough episodes to work out its kinks: “Now all Mulaney needs is a protagonist with an outlook as sharp and defined as Liz Lemon’s,” The A.V. Club says. “It has the beginnings of one in Mulaney’s stand-up, and a willfully weird show can be seen formatting around the comic’s observations and preoccupations.” Grantland made a similar note: “Though Mulaney dresses like a middle-aged Middlebury professor, there’s a younger energy at play in his show.” Whether that energy gets stifled, snuffed out altogether, or builds through its first wave of bad reviews depends of course on the ratings, which we’ve seen time and again have little or nothing in common with critical consensus anyway. In the meantime, most of Mulaney’s fans might have a similar reaction to Vulture after watching the first few episodes: “I hope the shortcomings of Mulaney don’t ruin his chances of having a better, funnier show in the future, because as things stand now, Mulaney is not a show I can root for. Maybe next time.”