Most sitcoms go into the dustbin of history and deservedly so.That is a truism acknowledged by the general public and known all too well by those of us who write about television. Still, there are caveats. A new network comedy might offer its strongest, funniest material in the first episode and go downhill from there, after the pilot is overpraised.
And then there's the series that starts off a wobbling, uncertain thing and eventually finds its feet, blossoming into a strong, well-crafted comedy. Anyone who has seen the pilot episode of The Big Bang Theory saw something vastly different from what it became. Hey, it happens, and it's a reminder to those of us who review and recommend television that there are false starts that sometimes become a cultural phenomenon.
A lot of successful TV comedies exist as part of cultural happenstance. Some hit a sweet spot of relevance that can be brief or immortal. And some, it must be acknowledged, act as a kind of safe place where issues that are treated with delicacy in the public discourse can be mocked. You get to laugh at pious homilies from the safety of your own home.
Such is the case with The Great Indoors (Thursday, CBS, Global, 8:30 pm), I think. First, the pilot episode seemed emphatically in one-joke mode and that joke wasn't polished. The gist is this: "Jack Gordon (Joel McHale) has made a name for himself as an adventure reporter for the magazine Outdoor Limits. His days of exploring the world end when the magazine's founder announces its move to Web-only publishing and assigns Jack to supervise the millennials who make up its online team."
What's remarkable and what explains the show's status as a new hit is that the one-joke format has been successfully mined and expanded.
Yes, the show relentlessly mocks millennials. On last week's episode, Jack had to complete his human-resources training that would qualify him to supervise millennials in the workplace. He watched a video that gave him direction. The video informed him, "First, we'll show you how to manage with P.A.C.E."
Then "P.A.C.E." was explained: "That's Praise Above Criticism Every time. Recent scientists have proven that we millennials are like flowers that wilt in the shade of criticism and blossom in the rays of praise."
In the ensuing kerfuffle, Jack fails to follow through on the P.A.C.E. thing. He thinks it ridiculous. HR threatens him with a demotion, so he agrees to accept an idea from a young worker even though he thinks it's ridiculous.
There is another bit of comedy business, which involves a performance review of a young employee. To make sure the employee isn't upset by questions or comments on his performance, he is allowed to write the review himself. For safety's sake, you know.
The episode also ventured into a short, merciless mockery of political correctness on the matter of diversity. Boss Brooke (Susannah Fielding) must hire a new intern and wants to embrace diversity by getting advice from Emma (Christine Ko) who is Asian and Mason (Shaun Brown), who is black. She delivers them stacks of resumes. "I've arranged them into piles based on the standard diversity categories," she says.
Mason objects to "segregated" résumés. Brooke explains the résumés are from "African-Americans, Hispanics, some gay people …" To which Mason replies, "Now you're just throwing labels around!" There follows a bizarre but all-too-on-point chat about the use of the word "they" and the matter of self-identification. It's very, very funny.
The point of The Great Indoors at this stage is not to set up generational differences and mildly mock millennials. It is to satirize political correctness itself. Like many workplace sitcoms it is essentially a satire of office life – that minefield in which a person is obliged to spend a lot of time with people of all types, some of whom you don't like, but you must get along with.
In this instance, however, the comedy also reaches into deft social and political satire – it's safety-valve satire. That's why it's a hit. The pilot episode didn't do it justice and, yeah, this sitcom is the best kind of cultural happenstance.
Also airing Thursday
Unstoppable: The Fentanyl Epidemic (CBC, 9 p.m. on Firsthand) is about what it says. But it promises this – a profile of a man known as Beeker. "He's an insider in the drug manufacturing world with a history of making drugs. Oddly, he's also a charming and intelligent man with a degree in chemistry. He loves painting and fishing and he's oddly self-reflective, well aware of what he does and the impact it has on people. Acting as our guide, Beeker gives us insights into this world and his own life rarely seen."