Man with a Plan. CBS. Monday, October 24, 8:30 p.m.
The Great Indoors. CBS. Thursday, October 27, 8:30 p.m.
Pure Genius. CBS. Thursday, October 27, 10 p.m.
My chum and former editor Virginia Postrel once wrote a book called The Future and Its Enemies. If she watches TV this week, she’ll undoubtedly add a new chapter on CBS. Its three new sitcoms all cling ferociously (if, in one case, hilariously) to the past. If this keeps up, CBS—where the age of the average viewer is already 59, by far the eldest of any broadcast net—will have to change its boastful slogan from The Tiffany Network to The Methuselah Network.
Before we get into a detailed necropsy, it’s worth noting that this is the final week of the fall TV season’s rollout, delayed a bit at CBS until its Thursday-night football schedule wrapped up. There’s no sign of a breakout hit among the new shows, and this final group of CBS stragglers is unlikely to change that.
If anything, the madly contemptuous tone toward millennials that drips from every scathing frame of the sitcom The Great Indoors is liable to actually raise the average age of the CBS audience not just to Social Security-benefit age but to the point where undertakers are setting up tents on the front lawn.
Joel McHale (Community) plays Jack, a ballsy and distinctly middle-aged adventure reporter who’s surprised when his outdoors magazine calls him home from an assignment living among bears. If you work in the journalism biz these days, the conversation with his publisher that follows needs no spoiler alert: Outdoor Limits, his magazine, is teetering on bankruptcy. The print edition is folding, there’s no money left for tramping around wolverine lairs, and Jack is being brought home to supervise a team of young Web rats—”the digital day-care division,” as he labels it—who know lots about the click-bait potential of frolicking-kitten videos and hipster listicles on surviving a zombie apocalypse, nothing about journalism or living outdoors. On the other side of the divide, Jack’s experience with the interwebs is limited to posting a dancing-baby video on his MySpace page two decades ago.
What follows is predictably murderous. The easily triggered kids (“I got passed over for a promotion again? What do I have to do? I’ve been here eight weeks!”) regard Jack as a prehistoric artifact—as one says, “a human version of dial-up.” Marvels another: “He has no Twitter, no Facebook. It’s like he doesn’t exist.” The head of the magazine’s HR department commiserates with Jack—”sometimes I want to beat them senseless with their selfie sticks”—but bluntly warns him there’s no escape. “They’re the only reason any of us is still employed, so get used to it.
Generational warfare has been a television staple at least since Archie Bunker and the Meathead went at it more than four decades ago in All in the Family. And, misopedist Baby Boomer that I am, I’ll admit to laughing gleefully at a lot of the snowflake-kiddie jokes, not to mention the idea of peddling $12 “ironic Spam sandwiches” to hipsters.
But The Great Indoors flouts the fundamental Geneva Convention rule of generation-gap humor—equal hostility towards all—in its relentlessly one-sided assault on millennials; virtually every line that draws blood comes at their expense. It doesn’t require an overdeveloped sense of empathy to see that, for anybody under 40, the show is going to feel less like a comedic experience than the receiving end of a gang-bang. When the show was screened for TV critics this summer, a press conference with the cast and producers nearly turned into a fistfight. In the demographic-centric world of television, that’s poisonous. The Great Indoors may turn out to be a historic moment, the Custer’s Last Stand of Baby Boomer television, but the key word there is “moment.”
The week’s lone drama debut, Pure Genius, tries to take the opposite track, draping itself in the technotrappings of the digital future, but its heart is pure analog. Augustus Prew (The Borgias) plays a young Silicon Valley zillionaire whose passions have turned to medicine. He’s built an ultramodern hospital chock-a-block with neurotransmission hardware and 3-D scanner-printers and other cyber-medical porn stuff.
Then he hires a brilliant rogue surgeon (Dermot Mulroney, August: Osage County) to run it with him, overseeing the usual team of passionate, intense, hard-bodied geniuses who embark on the usual run of miraculous cures and tragic but photogenic deaths, conducted to a soundtrack of indecipherable medical jargon to lend intellectual credentials and an occasional doomed romance as a reward for listening to all those multisyllabic words. In other words, all the same stuff you’ve seen on every TV medical drama back to the days of Ben Casey and Dr. Kildare, from which Pure Genius is indistinguishable except for the color photography.
If anything at all about Pure Genius is modern, it’s the Trumpian subtext that megalomaniacal rich guys can reorder the universe. Prew’s character believes that medical knowledge and training are credentialist pettifoggery and that a cure for anything at all can be effected through application of pure Nietzschean will, perhaps slightly augmented with cash. The only thing holding medicine back, in his opinion, is all this consultative twaddle between doctors. His prescription: “No hierarchy, no offices, best idea wins.” Perhaps in the series finale, somebody will tell him about the FDA, the FTC and state medical boards.
The other new CBS sitcom, Man with a Plan, is also a throwback to the halcyon days of television: specifically, 2004, when Friends left the air and the entire television industry was atingle with the idea of six major stars suddenly unleashed and available to alchemize TV schlock into gold. The resulting carnage did not quite equal the Seinfeld Curse, but reparations for Cougar Town and Mr. Sunshine are definitely due.
In Man with a Plan, the Friends alumnus supposedly providing the tentpole support is Matt LeBlanc, playing a blue-collar dad forced to take on a bigger role in raising three kids when his wife decides to go back to work.
LeBlanc is a talented comedian—his Episodes, which will wind up a five-season run on Showtime early next year, is the most scabrously funny Hollywood self-examination ever—but there’s no way he could have saved this generic, mailed-in show, in which the tepidity of the jokes is exceeded only by the depth to which they’re driven into the ground. Man with a Plan will sink quickly, but I can’t quite add the phrase “without a trace.” As the first broadcast television show ever to employ a running joke about pre-adolescent masturbation, its historical asterisk is secure.