TV Review: The Jim Gaffigan Show Is a Likable Spin on a Tired Premise

In The Jim Gaffigan Show, premiering tonight on TV Land, the show’s star and co-creator draws on his own stand-up and best-selling books; his art in turn is drawn from his life, so there’s a bit of an ouroboros thing happening. Gaffigan plays, of all people, Jim Gaffigan, a New York–based comedian with a wife named Jeannie (Ashley Williams) and five kids, the youngest of whom is an infant, seen during the time-lapse opening credits being carried around the kitchen in a Snugli. Is it insensitive to point out that Gaffigan is playing yet another heavyset TV dad with a skinny knockout wife? I suspect not — Gaffigan’s books include Dad Is Fat and Food: A Love Story, and his real-life wife is also named Jeannie and an industry veteran who co-produces the series with the star. How about the lead character’s general ineptitude and man-boy bluster, a tradition that stretches from The Honeymooners through Everybody Loves Raymond and beyond? Again, probably not, as the scripts nod knowingly at how the series employs this and other clichés. “People think this is — and I understand — they’re going to think this is horse shit,” Gaffigan told Vanity Fair in a recent profile, to which Ms. Gaffigan added, “They think, King of Queens with five kids.”

The pilot finds Jim returning from a tour and promising his children serious daddy time, only to cut to a shot of Jim just a few minutes later lying on his bed, insisting that he’s taking a moment to muster his energy. We can guess how this bit is going to play out, just as we can guess that when Jim leaves the house with both a preschool application and a daughter’s “adorable” drawing of dad’s penis in his coat pocket that the two are going to end up switched, leading to I Love Lucy–style shenanigans. Michael Ian Black is on hand playing an ex-boyfriend of Jeannie’s who eventually figured out he was gay. He is warm but cutting, of course. (When Jim worries that he’ll be perceived as stupid, he says, “Your signature bit is you singing ‘Hot Pockets,’ and suddenly you’re worried about people thinking you’re stupid?”) There’s some decent material involving Adam Goldberg as the hero’s obligatory semi-sleazy best friend, who’s first seen begging Jim to come down to a local bar as soon as possible, not telling him that he’ll be expected to help sell an alibi for cheating. There are cameos by Chris Rock and Hannibal Buress as themselves (at a comedy club) and small roles for the likes of Janeane Garofalo (as a preschool teacher) and Macaulay Culkin (as a barista who might or might not be Macaulay Culkin).

This is a single camera sitcom — i.e., shot like a movie, without a laugh track, and mostly in actual New York locations — so we’re spared a lot of the pandering annoyances that the three-cameras-and-a-studio-audience format usually insists on. Unfortunately, the format also opens up questions of why the filmmaking is mostly content to document performances and punch lines rather than use the camera to tell the story, as, say,  Malcolm in the Middle did, and as Black-ish does. The situations mostly seem to observe Seinfeld’s “no hugging, no learning” mantra. When Jim gets drunk before performing at an event organized by a friend’s mother, Jeannie doesn’t yell at him, she gets tanked, too. This is also a rare recent sitcom that can be comfortably watched by parents and children at the same time. Most of the risqué material isn’t any more risqué than what kids would overhear in life, and the stuff that’s genuinely adult is pitched over their heads, and there’s only the mildest profanity. (The Wall Street Journal recently called Gaffigan “The King of (Clean) Comedy” — not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

I’m not sure how many more sitcoms about nationally successful comedians TV needs. At least The Jim Gaffigan Show is a likable and good one — and it gets livelier and more confident as it goes along. It isn’t trying to knock you out by reinventing the form. Mainly it’s content to do things you’ve seen done a million times, and well. If, at the end, you come away wishing there were a bit more to it, that’s more a complaint against TV executives’ comfort in familiarity than with the series itself.

TV Review: The Jim Gaffigan Show