Television

Thursday's Cavalcade of Unfunny New 'Comedies' Will Make You Fear the Death of Humor

Did they run out of budget for the jokes?

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  • The Unicorn. CBS. Thursday, September 26, 8:30 p.m.
  • Carol's Second Act. CBS. Thursday, September 26, 9:30 p.m.
  • Sunnyside. NBC, Thursday, September 26, 9:30 p.m.
  • Perfect Harmony. NBC. Thursday, September 26, 8:30 p.m.

Back in the mid-1990s, when NBC's Thursday-night comedy lineup included FriendsSeinfeld, and Mad About You, it promoted the evening as "Must-See TV" and even tried unsuccessfully to trademark the phrase. Lawyers all over America—or at least maybe Michael Avenatti—are waiting to see if the network will do any better this fall with "Must-Stab-Yourself-In-Both-Eyes TV."

To be fair, NBC will probably have to share the registration with CBS. Together, the two networks debut four new comedies Thursday, only one of them capable of raising a ghost of a smile as the fall broadcast season staggers into its second half like a stray cast member from The Walking Dead. Live audiences would walk out on most of this stuff even if the shows were screened on an airplane.

The lone semi-exception is CBS' Carol's Second Act, starring Patricia Heaton (lately of ABC's underrated domestic comedy The Middle) as a retired schoolteacher launching a new career as a 60-something doctor.

That's an odd premise for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that in real life, medical interns with Medicare cards are roughly as common as Catholic nuns at abortion clinics. And television shows pitched at the forward edge of the Baby Boomer demo—which Carol's Second Act surely is—are scarcer yet. In the Nielsen world, "over 55" is a polite term for "rotting corpse."

How this made it to air can probably be answered in one word: Heaton. One of the most reliably funny women in television, her presence as the newly minted Dr. Carol Kenney on Carol's Second Act lends the show a heft that belies its otherwise lightweight qualities.

As she's been doing on first Everybody Loves Raymond and then The Middle for the past two decades, Heaton plays an occasionally dithery but ultimately sturdily competent woman holds the home together in the face of raucous children and oblivious husbands.

In Carol's Second Act, however, the husband character is no longer a spouse but a steely resident physician (stage actress Ito Aghayere) and the kids a bunch of over-ambitious and under-empathetic interns right out of medical school.

They all assume Carol's on some soon-to-be-abandoned bucket-list quest, an impression bolstered by the kind of pratfalls that are a staple of Heaton's comedy. But after four decades as a schoolmarm, Carol is not easily rattled. ("Try teaching 40 ninth-graders how to dissect a frog. You'll find out who the serial killers are.")

And, in a scene that will resonate with millions of Boomers being elbowed out of their workplaces on a daily basis, she insists to the resident that her age is an asset, not a liability. "I don't see the world the way that I did when I was 28," she argues. "I know that life doesn't work out the way you want it to. … My age is what's going to make me a great doctor."

That's sweet and heartfelt. But Carol's Second Act could use more punchlines and less impassioned wisdom. Though it should be noted that the show shatters one of the last remaining stanchions of Newton-Minow-era television rectitude when Carol's daughter, a pharmaceutical rep, casually mentions that her main product line is "boner pills."

If Carol's Second Act is a little too sedulous for its good, it's practically a Marx Brothers movie compared to its CBS companion The Unicorn. Veteran TV psycho Walton Goggins (Justified) abruptly shifts gears to play Wade Felton, a widowed father of two young daughters who a year after his wife's funeral is still serving them broody dinners of frozen lasagna left by neighbors.

At the urging of his friends and neighbors, Wade decides to begin dating. As a widower with a job rather than a long resume of Internet hookups, one pal tells him, "You are a unicorn, you know, that elusive creature that all single women are looking for." And all the more so because he rejects sympathy-banging.

What follows are some awkward dates in which Walton is very forthright and earnest. That's not the same thing as funny. Not at all the same thing, as you'll realize well before the first commercial wakes you up.

Terminal earnestness is also the trouble with NBC's Sunnyside, in which Kal Penn of the Harold & Kumar movies plays Garrett Modi, an ex-New York City councilman whose political career ends when he's caught on video drunk-driving, puking on a police car, and offering a bribe to a cop. (That's one video, mind you.)

Somehow or other, Modi gets hired by a group of hapless immigrants who hope he can help them pass their citizenship exams—even though most of his wisdom about American civics is unlikely to be on the test. ("Don't send pictures of your wiener to people, especially if your name is Weiner.")

Modi intends to lazily rip off his new clients, of course, but instead is charmed senseless by all the clichés of their existence: One is an Ethiopian cardiothoracic surgeon driving a cab in Queens, another is a woman from the Dominican Republic holding down half-a-dozen jobs, a third a seemingly typical American teenager whose parents recently revealed that they brought him to the United States from Moldova as an infant without the niceties of a passport or visa. (There are also an indolently wealthy brother and sister who seem to have gotten lost from the set of Crazy Rich Asians.)

I'm well aware that all those noble shibboleths are, for most immigrants, largely accurate. That doesn't make them a barrel, or even a little Salvation Army tin cup, full of laughs. Despite Modi's manic presentation, Sunnyside resembles nothing so much as a 30-minute public-service spot for Catholic Legal Services or some other pro-bono law firm.

The least of the evening's offerings is NBC's Perfect Harmony, a kind of Pitch Perfect Goes to Hillbilly Hell. (Just to be sure you get it, the show even has Pitch Perfect's Anna Camp as a smokin' bumpkin chanteuse.) It stars the formerly credible Bradley Whitford as a mean-mouthed Princeton music department chair who takes his wife back to her hick Kentucky hometown to die.

Due to an odd combination of circumstances—I'd tell you, but then you'd beg me to kill you—he becomes the coach of a hopelessly untuneful church choir as it enters a choral contest against a televangelist monolith from down the road.

There are lots of jokes about the sexual and intellectual traits of white trash, apparently the only remaining socio-economic minority without PC protection, but out of respect for the billions of pixels leaping to their fiery deaths to bring you this review, we will say no more.

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