There hasn’t been a series like this in some time. Or perhaps, ever.
Chad (starts Tuesday, CTV Comedy Network, 10:30 p.m.) is so packed with awkward, cringe-inducing humour that it stands alone. It is also divisive. Before it had even aired on TBS in the United States last week – heavily promoted during March Madness – some haters who had only seen promos took to online review forums to condemn it. We’ll get to the reasons in a minute.
First, though, Chad is funny and connoisseurs of excruciating comedy will adore it. Central character Chad (Nasim Pedrad) is 14 years old and trying to be a teenager. He’s still a kid, mind you. It’s just that as a teen he’s obnoxious, insecure, rude and oblivious to embarrassment. In the first episode, on his first day in high school, he wants it known that over the summer he had sex. Some kids believe him, some don’t.
One who does believe him is the wannabe goth girl who hangs out by a dumpster and likes to set things on fire. She invites Chad over for some canoodling. It’s not giving much away – trust me – to reveal that he passes out and runs home sobbing to his mom. In the second episode he brings a sword to school to impress people, apparently ignorant of firm rules about kids having a weapon on school property. When he’s not trying to impress, he’s either demanding or calling his sister names.
Why the fuss? Well, it’s a two-fold thing. Chad is Persian and a bit mixed up about his heritage. That sword he takes to school came as a gift from his dad, who is in Iran. His mom and dad are divorced and when mom announces she’s dating a Muslim guy, Chad is outraged. He’s expecting a walking, talking caricature of a Muslim. But when mom’s new boyfriend turns out to be a cool dude, Chad becomes unhealthily attached to the guy. In an early scene his best friend Peter asks him, “Do you like being Persian?” to which Chad replies, “It’s not as cool as being Black but that comes with its own set of complications.”
The other red flag for some viewers is the fact that 14-year-old Chad is played by the show’s creator, and Nasim Pedrad is a 39-year-old woman. She does the role convincingly and her acting style, mimicking a teenage boy, adds a certain frisson to the comedy that is hard to pin down, but makes some people very nervous. One online comment was this: “TBS is premiering a show called Chad where a 40-year-old woman is playing a 14-year-old boy. Our culture deserves to die on the ash heap of history.”
It’s not the first time that adults have played teenagers in a TV series. The core charm and pathos of the acclaimed Pen15 (streams on CBC Gem) is in having thirtysomething comics Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle play versions of themselves as teenage outcasts. Here in Chad, however, it’s a woman playing a teenage boy and that is much more fraught, apparently. It’s odd how the concept of “acting” becomes troublesome, but only in a specific context.
The larger context for the controversy around Chad is the formidably awkward approach of mainstream American TV in dealing with immigration. Two CBS comedies, Bob Hearts Abishola (businessman Bob falls for his cardiac nurse, Abishola, a Nigerian immigrant) and the recently arrived United States of Al, have created a backlash that’s highly complicated.
The United States of Al is about the friendship between Riley, a Marine combat veteran struggling to readjust to civilian life in Ohio, and Awalmir (that’s “Al”), the interpreter who served with his unit in Afghanistan, and has arrived to start a new life in the United States. On the one hand, Muslims have poured scorn on the Al character, saying he’s a cliché. On the other hand, some viewers resent the underlying theme of the show, which is that the United States needs new arrivals such as Al. Neither show is exactly nuanced. Both are produced by veteran Chuck Lorre (The Big Bang Theory), and seem to rest on a single premise: other cultures are weird but Americans can benefit from knowing about them.
Chad is in a field of its own. The central character is insensitive, manipulative, obtuse, competitive and mercilessly self-absorbed. He is also deeply confused and there is great poignancy in the character. The show doesn’t feel at all like the work of a soulless Hollywood comedy machine, as Lorre’s creations do. It’s weird, it’s wonderful and a cult-classic is born.
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