Mainstream TV keeps chugging along. You can have your high-concept, premium-cable and movie-star-filled streaming shows. But loads of people want to see a comedy or a police procedural on old-fashioned TV. There’s still gas in that tank.
At the plush offices in Los Angeles where such decisions are made, some honchos recently took a break from denying that gender-pay issues and sexual harassment exist to renew some newly launched shows.
This is an interesting point in the TV season. Ratings and reviews tell the honchos what people are watching and liking. It also tells us about the cultural currents that are flowing.
CBS is adding new episodes and giving full-season endorsements to a whole bunch of shows. Among them are Evil (Thursday, CBS and Global, 10 p.m.), which is a fascinating trip into religion-versus-science via a procedural format. It has a 13-episode run and will be back again next year. Also getting the backing of more episodes are All Rise, Carol’s Second Act, The Unicorn and Bob Hearts Abishola.
Most of these are best described as comfort shows with repetitive plots and mildly appealing characters. By far the best of the bunch is The Unicorn (Thursday, CBS and Global, 8:30 p.m.). It looks on the surface like a generic comedy, but it has a certain unique kind of wit and warmth without ever being saccharine or dumb. I’ve been enjoying it. And I know much of its charm resides in the cast, especially the lead figure.
That’s Walton Goggins, who plays Wade, a dad to two girls. His wife died a year ago and he’s been ultraoccupied raising the girls, trying to make a living as a contractor and trying to keep his little household happy and fed. Wade’s not in denial. He’s just busy. So busy, in fact, that he and the kids have been living off the food given to him when his wife died. As the series opens – you can watch the early episodes on Global’s website in Canada – he’s down to the last frozen lasagne in the freezer. One of his friends refers to the house as, “The Disney Channel version of Grey Gardens.”
His pals tell him that running out of the frozen food is a sign. He’s got to get out there, have a life and, maybe, meet some new lady friends. Reluctant, rattled by the fervour of their interest, Wade finally goes along with their plan. He soon discovers that a lot of women are interested in a widower. He is, as one neighbour suggests, “The Unicorn, the elusive thing that every single woman is looking for.”
It all goes awry, mostly. This is good to see, as a sitcom about a widower/dad dating again has its limitations. Wade expands as a character and is allowed to be angry, grief-stricken, doltish, a devoted dad and just a man carrying a burden.
Goggins is superb. He’s a formidable actor. In The Shield and in Justified, two of the best drama series of the past 20 years, he played strung-out, dangerous men and was utterly plausible as figures that could explode in deranged anger and do terrible things to other people. As a sitcom dad, he brings an acting range that’s rare on a family-friendly CBS series. There’s real depth to Wade and one can only assume Goggins was interested in the role because it’s grounded, and Wade is a man who is neither fool nor straight man for both the mockery and the sympathy that’s aimed at him.
The supporting cast – Rob Corddry, Michaela Watkins, Omar Miller, Maya Lynne Robinson – is also excellent. Watkins, who was superb in Amazon Prime Video’s Transparent and Hulu’s Casual, is especially strong as a woman who wants to nourish Wade, but not too much. Everyone involved grasps the deadpan nature of the comedy and relishes the sharp wit, a kind of subdued drollery that’s uncommon in network sitcoms.
It’s not going to blow your mind, this sitcom. But it will remind you that it’s possible to see a clever comedy about middle age, dating and parenting that never insults your intelligence. In a way, the down-to-Earth, emotional-but-funny quality to The Unicorn is the anti-This Is Us. It has depth and wit and stands as a feel-good show about families and people who make missteps and have regrets. As for cultural currents, it’s a new kind of nuanced look at a middle-aged man, one who isn’t a brooding anti-hero or a complete fool, but recognizably baffled and authentic.