"‘Back In The Game,’ And Three Ways Network Sitcoms Can Be More Like Cable Without Sex Or Violence"
Back In The Game, which premieres tonight on ABC at 8:30, isn’t the kind of show that will get much attention this fall, and that’s fine. The sitcom, which follows Terry Gannon (Maggie Lawson), a former All-American Softball player who’s moved home after a recent divorce, and is living with her irascible former baseball player father, nicknamed The Cannon (James Caan) and trying to raise her son, Danny (Griffin Gluck) isn’t especially good, and I’m not sure it’s going to last in a season where very few shows stand out, and even there, not by a considerable margin. But watching Back In The Game for a second time, it struck me that the show is a decent demonstration of how network television could learn from cable.
For the most part, as it’s tried to compete back against the cable revolution, network TV has responded with increasingly violent dramas. It’s easier to get away showing fairly intense violence in late primetime slots on network than it is to broadcast any sexualized content, and given that Showtime president David Nevins has defined cable’s licenses as “sex, violence, and bad behavior,” violence seems to be the one trend networks think they can jump on. But Back In The Game, which is undeniably flawed, is a reminder that if network television looks carefully, it can find ways to incorporate some of the spiky, scruffy humanity of cable television into its own programming without investing in vats of fake blood–or other bodily fluids.
1. Your characters can be genuinely bad, or have real problems–just make them interesting: Back In The Game is one of two sitcoms this fall that treats its characters’ relationships with alcohol with an unusual queasiness. In Mom, both the main character and her mother are recovering addicts. And in Back In The Game, The Cannon’s drinking is presented as something that makes him both not quite fit as a grandfather, and as a contributing factor in his meanness. When he tells Danny, who’s gotten a black eye at school, to “Go get three cans of beer. Put one of those bad boys right on your eye,” and in response to Danny’s question about what he’s supposed to do with the other two cans, responds “Hands!” in an imperious tone, you can almost see what the characters from How I Met Your Mother risk appearing to their grandchildren in another thirty years. This isn’t the only kind of unpleasantness that shows up in Back In The Game: Terry ends up coaching baseball in a league with an obnoxious, abrasive sexist (Ben Koldyke) as the lead organizer. The way he hits on her may be cartoonish, but the viciousness with which he and other dads gossip about other kids and their families at Little League tryouts–he says of Danny, “What kind of parent lets their kid come out and embarrass themselves like that?”–genuinely hurts. Network sitcoms tend to tiptoe up to the edge of hurt or abrasiveness, and then pull back quickly. If those shows want to be more like cable, they could let the pain actually arrive, and then build comedy out of that. The injury doesn’t have to come from an issue like blurred sexual consent, to name one topic that both Louie and Girls have made powerful television out of but that might not get past network Standards and Practices, as long as the emotion is genuine.
2. Recognize that kids aren’t walled off from the realities of adult life, including sexuality: When Danny is being bullied at his new school, he responds in a novel way, planting a kiss right on the other boy’s lips–in front of the girl they both like. The girl in question asks why Danny did it, and Danny explains “That kid’s scared of me now. He doesn’t know why, but he is.” Another kid on Danny’s baseball team, Michael (J.J. Totah), seems like he could potentially grow up to be gay, though the pilot makes a wise decision in refusing to nail him down for sure before he hits middle school. There’s a tendency on network television, particularly in comedy, to treat young children like they exist in hermetically sealed chambers that keeps them from being influenced by the behavior of adults or getting messages about what’s good, or bad, or threatening that they they incorporate into their own behavior. It’s genuinely interesting to see Danny act on the knowledge that straight guys are scared of gay ones, even if he doesn’t really understand why, or to see a network television parent be encouraging of a child who doesn’t behave in entirely gender-normative ways (a plot line that’s a bright spot in the otherwise-disappointing House of Lies). Similarly, it would be smart for Back In The Game to show Danny experiencing some real consequences from the fractious relationship between his mother and grandmother. Sealing kids off from the real world is a great way to prevent complaints about your television show, but it also gives up a whole host of stakes. Treating child characters with respect is a way to make shows feel more grown-up.
3. Create real barriers for your characters, not just fake television ones: Back In The Game is yet another entry in television’s attempt to create a show out of middle-aged children hit by the recession who move home with their parents (The Michael J. Fox Show has a college-dropout character who’s back with his parents as well). The trope hasn’t quite hit, in part because the kids in question have often been painted as ditzes, or their parents have been set up as irritating eccentrics. Back In The Game could do better than its predecessors in part by making it genuinely difficult for Terry to get another job after moving around, and making The Cannon challenging to live with–and challenged by the additions to his household–not just because he’s in the middle of some sort of wacky late-middle-age sexual renaissance. Comedies that aren’t confident about their joke-writing abilities often decide that everything about their characters’ circumstances have have to have a manic, eccentric cast to it. By remembering that good comedy can come out of generally challenging circumstances, network could step up its game.