I happened upon the pilot for the new ABC sitcom "Smothered" recently. Nobody asked me to sign anything or to refrain from talking about it, so I thought I'd put down some thoughts. The short version is, there are a lot of talented people in the cast, but this is one of those shows where I am reminded why I no longer watch many network sitcoms.
"Smothered" is about two pairs of smothering grandparents competing for the affections of their baby granddaughter. The young couple caught between them, Gillian (Brooke D'Orsay) and Zack (Kyle Howard), try their best to mediate and be fair about access, but they're no match for the new grandmothers, who are willing to go to any lengths to spend more time with baby Peyton when everyone convenes for her first birthday party. The older couples are polar opposites of course, conforming to the usual sitcom types. Zack's parents Fran (Marcia Gay Harden) and Alan (Adam Arkin) are Jewish New Yorkers, who do things like vacation in Europe and eat gazpacho soup. Gillian's parents Patty (Julie White) and Skip (John C. McGinley) are from Tennessee and do things like quilt and show affection through manual labor. The final member of the cast is Kate Micucci, playing Gillian's younger sister Susie, who also lives nearby, but is totally ignored by her parents in favor of the baby. She's essentially the sad-sack Robert Barone character from the early seasons of "Everybody Loves Raymond," but cuter.
This is not the only blatant attempt to try to summon the mojo of "Raymond." All the action in the "Smothered" pilot is driven by Fran and Patty, who seem determined to be nosier, needier, more stubborn, and more manipulative than Marie Barone at her worst. Their husbands barely register, happy to hang back and deliver wry one-liners once in a while to remind us they're still there. All I could think throughout the episode was that there must be something terribly wrong with both grandmothers, some awful void in their lives or unspoken traumas that would drive them to act like this. It was painful to see actors like Marcia Gay Harden, Adam Arkin, and John C. McGinley playing such empty, two-dimensional characters. Julie White came off the best, since Patty at least offers up some excuses for her behavior, but if she went any broader she'd be the horizon line. And while I've liked Marcia Gay Harden in her other roles, her Fran is such an affected snob, she's downright unlikeable.
I'd say that the biggest problem is that D'Orsay and Howard, playing the young couple, get totally steamrollered by the older actors, and come off very generic and dull. All I really got was that Zack was a bit of a snarker, Gillian was probably much smarter than the lousy dialogue coming out of her mouth, and both of them couldn't find the backbone to stand up to their parents. Like too many sitcom creatures, it was all high energy and good looks with hardly a shred of personality to go with it. "Smothered" reminds me more of "Dharma and Greg" than "Everybody Loves Raymond," with the opposing sets of in-laws, but "Dharma" worked because of that wonderful chemistry between Jenna Elfman and Thomas Gibson that got the audience to root for them. Zack and Gillian simply don't cut it. My favorite part of the pilot wound up being Kate Micucci as the sister. She made for a good running joke, but it's one that's been done so many times before, I wonder if it can really be sustained for multiple episodes.
I don't think the premise of "Smothered" is unworkable, but the execution was so ham-handed and overwrought, I was cringing where I was probably meant to be laughing. There were so many tired old cliches about Middle Americans and about New Yorkers, none of which rang even vaguely true. Every situation was overblown, overplayed, and made me like the characters less and less as the episode wore on. And worst of all, by choosing "Everybody Loves Raymond" as their template, "Smothered" felt like a sitcom at least ten years out of date. Is ABC really going to put this thing on after "Modern Family" or "Cougar Town"? Older audiences would probably appreciate the cast, but not the constant histrionics. I expect younger audiences would have the same reaction I did, and flee in terror.
I laughed at "Smothered" exactly twice, both times when Adam Arkin delivered mild one-liners that suggested he was as miserable existing within the confines of the pilot as I was watching it. I'd keep him, keep Micucci, and chuck everything else.