It was an epic session of hate. And all because of a sitcom with the innocuous name of Dads.
The Fox show, coming this fall (on City stations in Canada) stars Seth Green and Giovanni Ribisi as a couple of thirtysomething guys, best friends since childhood, who now operate a start-up video game company. They josh about how weird and gross their respective dads are. Then their dads, played by comedy veterans Peter Riegert and Martin Mull, come to visit and each sticks around, moving in with their boy.
Mild comedy ensues, you'd think, this being a network sitcom. But as many critics see it, what unfolds is dumb, racist, ageist, and generally just unforgivable crudeness. As crazy as it sounds, this silly sitcom, Dads, is the most controversial of the new fall season of TV shows.
A critic put it bluntly to the show's cast and producers: "The tone of the humour in the show struck some of us as maybe a little racist." Another asked, "How are viewers supposed to relate to behaviour like that [on the show]? Are you [creating] a comedy anti-hero show, or are we supposed to find your behaviour adorable?"
Little wonder there was an edge to the questions. In the pilot episode, one dad sees his son watching a boxing match on TV and cracks that it should be called "Punch the Puerto Rican." In the workplace, the two young entrepreneurs employ an Asian female staffer, a formidable computer technician (Brenda Song), who is asked to dress up as a sexy Asian schoolgirl (pigtails, miniskirt, cleavage) to please Chinese investors at a meeting. She does.
Actually, the critics' soreness and hate-on for Dads was an illuminating insight into all-American sensitivity about issues of race, class, age and ethnicity. These are testy times here.
Further, we live in a period when a lot of TV is reviewed, analyzed and discussed by critics as elevated entertainment. Cable series are reviewed in the way literary novels are examined and interpreted. Then along comes 22 minutes of crude, old-fashioned wisecracks and easy jokes. Livid horror is the critical response.
And there's another twist – Dads is produced by Seth MacFarlane (Family Guy, American Dad), Alec Sulkin (Family Guy) and the hands-on executive producer is Mike Scully, who has spent years writing and producing The Simpsons. MacFarlane didn't come to meet the assembled TV critics, but Scully and Sulkin did. They quickly got enmeshed in arguments about what's allowable in animated comedy and a live-action sitcom. They were defensive. Sulkin said, "We ideally want to keep it insulting and irreverent. If we missed the mark a few times in the pilot, we're aiming to hit it better in coming shows." Scully claimed The Simpsons was once very controversial – which isn't really true – and tried to calm the critics by assuring us, "We don't want this to be the racial-insult comedy show. It's a comedy about fathers and sons, and you want to strike that relatable thing."
It was put to Scully that he was bringing the outrageousness of animation to live action and he had crossed a line. "When we're shooting the show and rehearsing it, we'll, hopefully, be able to make that determination of what is more of an animation joke," he acknowledged. "There's a level of reality removed in animation that sometimes lets you get away with more, lets the audience accept more. And we'll find that line as we go."
Then Brenda Song, the focus of the sexy Asian schoolgirl controversy, agreed that she was taken aback by the scene in the script when she first saw it. She said that she said to herself, "Alright, Brenda, this is your job." At the same time, she tried to defuse the controversy and admitted to her own use of Asian stereotypes. She told the critics she had joked, "I'm Asian! I'm really good at math!" And, sometimes, when she gets unwanted male attention she reacts with, "Ah, sorry. I no speak English."
We went around in circles. The producers talked "political correctness" among the critics. The critics figure that network television is too white, too stupid. The American critics do have a point. American network TV is so stuck in the past that it's notable when two Latina actresses are employed on the same show. Given the political climate, with issues of race and immigration being the focus of fierce debate, a silly sitcom can cause high agitation.
Everybody knows it. Fox network boss Kevin Reilly had earlier cautioned critics against overreacting to the humour on Dads. "Here's a thing about Dads that I really ask you to put in context," he said. "That's a pilot. You know the lineage of these writers. They come out of Family Guy. They are the best writers. They are the next generation [of] comedy writers and some of the most sought-after comedy writers in Hollywood. These guys are going to try to test a lot of boundaries. They are going to try to be equal-opportunity offenders. Do I think all the jokes right now are in calibration in the pilot? I don't. But I can tell you right now, I have never seen a comedy in which all the jokes are in calibration. That's the nature of comedy."
Then he read out some reviews. The critics thought he was quoting them on Dads. "Lame brain. To call this a one-joke sitcom would be a stretch," Reilly read. And this: "It may be the worst sitcom I've ever watched." Then he revealed he was quoting from reviews of The Big Bang Theory's first episode from years ago.
Is Dads the next Big Bang? Probably not. But it's already notorious for the hate it generates, not the hilarity.