Even in the post-antihero, post-relatable TV world, it’s hard to spend time with a protagonist who fails miserably at everything and resents the people who want to help. Even when it’s a joke, it’s hard to spend time with a protagonist who lashes out at their family and cannot see the hurt they cause. It’s hard to spend time with a protagonist who hates almost everything and everyone, and can only see the world through the lens of their self-interest. It’s tough spending time with the new TBS comedy Chad, and it’s entirely because hanging out with Chad is a real chore.
Created by and starring Nasim Pedrad, Chad will inevitably draw comparisons to the Hulu series Pen15. Like that series, Chad stars an adult (Pedrad) playing the role of a teenager, surrounded by a cast of much younger actors as Chad’s friends and classmates. And also like Pen15, it is keyed into the intense awkwardness of being a teenager. Chad perpetually misreads his classmates, and he longs to fit in while constantly saying exactly the wrong thing. The shows share the same rough conceit and approach to who plays the main character: the adults portraying these teens are giving totally sincere performances. They don’t wink at the age gap or draw attention to distance between the actor and the role, even though Chad has an additional gender twist with a female actor playing a teenage boy.
Maybe there’s a world where having one show with adults playing young teenagers is helpful for the next show with the same idea — it creates a category, turning it into a little genre that can be populated by more than one show. In the case of Chad, though, the fact that Pen15 already exists does the new series no favors. It’s too easy to look at the Hulu show as a benchmark, to use it as a diagnostic test for where exactly Chad has gone wrong.
Chad tells the story of a Persian teenage boy who desperately wants to be one of the cool kids. He has a best friend, Peter (Jake Ryan), a supportive mother (Saba Homayoon), a surprisingly helpful younger sister (Ella Mika), and an empathetic uncle (Paul Chahidi). But Chad doesn’t care about any of them unless he needs a favor, and in the case of his sister and his friend Peter, Chad is perfectly happy to exploit them so he can ideally chuck them once he gets cooler friends — something he’s perfectly open about, to their faces. There’s plenty of teen awkwardness and obvious unlikeability in Pen15, too, but Chad has none of Maya and Anna’s deep-down sensitivity, their love for one another, or their incredible weirdness. Chad is rude, he’s tone-deaf, he’s unpleasant, and I suspect some of that is just because of the way the character is written. But it’s also a structural problem. Pedrad’s Chad is extremely (excruciatingly) alone; while Maya and Anna of Pen15 can create a shared world in their co-performances, Pedrad is just out there by herself, standing next to a high school locker and trying hard to sell it.
Chad’s awkwardness is also surprisingly bland. He wants to match the cool kids, so he copies their language and screws up the terminology. He does a very sincere performance at an assembly that everyone else reads as a joke. He’s really mad that he doesn’t have the new Lebrons. There are some details that feel lived-in, especially the things that relate to Chad’s Persian background, but the high school of it all lacks specificity. Once again, it’s hard not to look at Pen15 as a point of comparison. Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine’s series is set in 2000, the year they themselves were 13-year-olds, and so much of the show’s success comes from its crystal clear depiction of high school at that precise moment. Chad’s high school does not play like a painful reality. It is a TV high school, with high ceilings, bright lighting, clean floors, and a passel of teen bro cool guys who look like they were designed by a computer trying to model generic teen bro cool guys. The references are broad and obvious, and Chad’s graceless attempts at being cool look broad and obvious, too. There are sections where Chad itself seems unconvinced that this is working. At times, the background score shifts into the uneasy jauntiness of an over-telegraphed string section. “This is funny!” the music nudges you. “It’s so funny!”
The parts of Chad that work best are those relating to his family and how much he wishes he were more culturally American and less Persian. “Chad” is an American name the character picks when he can’t find his given Persian name on a sales rack of fake license plates. Some of the stories that do actually land successfully are the ones that loop in something distinct about Chad’s life — he gets a sword as a gift; his uncle Hamid takes him to a hookah place to get some black market shoes. But while Chad isn’t Pen15, it’s also not Ramy, a show nestled deeply into a character’s ambivalence about being Muslim, about immigration and family traditions, and about yearning for but also loathing cultural Americanness. Chad makes gestures in those directions, and even those small glimmers are a big deal for the representation of Middle-Eastern families on television. That makes it even more frustrating that Chad does not have the range.
For all its missteps, there are some opportunities where Chad could redeem itself. A character with Chad’s degree of boorishness is just begging for an arc of some kind, which the eight episodes of the first season suggest is possible but do not deliver. Even a small click toward self-awareness would make a huge difference, and there is a version of this show going back to its original description that could’ve been so much more fascinating. In some of the earliest information about Chad, it was going to be a show about “a 14-year-old boy in the throes of adolescence who is tasked with being the man of the house.” That description promises something more fraught about who Chad is, a more obvious tension between what’s asked of the character and what he can deliver. It suggests a large cultural burden he’s failing to live up to, rather than just failing to live up to the basic standards of being a person in the world. I don’t know where that show went, but I would really like to watch it.