Tuesday, March 15, 2016

REVIEW: 'Crowded' - Mike and Martina are Surprised When Their Daughters Move Back Home in 'Pilot' & 'Present Tense'

NBC's Crowded - Episode 1.01 "Pilot" & 1.02 "Present Tense"

Mike and Martina's two daughters move back home after college and they all have to deal with the new reality. Mike and Martina try to spice up their sex life. Stella coaches Shea on how to snag boys with a dating app.

Crowded is a painless new sitcom on NBC that is very similar to Suzanne Martin's last series creation, TV Land's Hot in Cleveland. There is nothing ground-breaking about this show. It boasts a very talented cast. Patrick Warburton, Stacy Keach and Miranda Cosgrove are all respectable comedic veterans at this point while Carrie Preston earned that Emmy for her recurring role on The Good Wife. And yet, the material on this show doesn't quite live up to the talents of its cast. These first two episodes are very formulaic. Everything about this show feels dated. Its style, tone, rhythm and comedic sensibility never really add up to anything of genuine merit in 2016. It's the type of show that thinks using a swear world is all it takes to get a studio audience to laugh. It's a show that's very proud of the fact that's Bob's wife is a black woman. These concepts feel very dated and irrelevant in today's medium. And yet, the show still persists that this subject matter is very timely and relatable in the real world. It just hasn't quite figured out what to do with that premise yet.

The actual plot of these first two episodes are basically the same. Mike and Martina's daughters, Stella and Shea, move back home after college which gets in the way of the parents having sex. That's basically what both of these episodes are about. Playing them back-to-back only heightens those similarities. It also shows just how clunky the setup for this premise really is. Martin is amused by the idea that many millennials are now living at home with their parents again and that it doesn't have the same social stigma that it did with the previous generation. But that amusement only goes so far. All the jokes in these first two episodes only go to the surface level of these characters and the situations they find themselves in. That ultimately means that Shea and Stella are the immature millennials who don't want to work too hard, Mike and Martina are the parents who enjoy their reinvigorated sex life, and Bob and Alice are the cranky old couple who yell out horrible things but it's okay because they are old.

None of this really adds up to a whole lot in terms of making each of these characters distinct. The perspective of these opening episodes is almost entirely on Mike and Martina. They are the lead characters who are so confused by a world where their daughters want to live at home with them again. They enjoyed a nice life together in the "empty nest." Sure, they didn't accomplish a whole lot other than sex. At least that's the only thing relevant to the audience's understanding of what those four years were like for them. It's a very sex-obsessed show. It never gets too crass in order to go for big laughs with how edgy the humor is. But that's because the show's definition of edgy seems trapped in an 2002 mentality. That means it's suppose to be funny that Martina, Shea and Stella walk into the kitchen to see that Mike has been watching porn on the family computer. That's a situation that only happens in service of a broad joke. It's asking the audience to believe that Mike is so old-fashioned that he doesn't know how to use his phone for the exact same task or to do it when he knows he'll have privacy.

And yet, Warburton is able to elevate the material a little bit. He infuses Mike with an energy that makes the comedic situations almost work. Sure, the characterizations aren't always the best. But it still feels like a character who has been shaped by these specific circumstances. He's a man who's enjoying a happy life alone with his wife not needing to be a parent or caretaker to anyone. The rest of his family is ruining that for him - first by coming back home and later by pointing out just how "vanilla" he is. It's very awkward storytelling. But Mike still feels like a character who acts in a way that's understandable given the other people in his life. He's a man who's willing to change his mind completely about having his girls stay at home just to prove to his father just how good of a parent he really is. Mike and Bob do have a few minor moments that actually do feel a little heartwarming as well. They don't last for very long. But the show is putting in the work to explore what's happening in these dynamics underneath the surface.

Of course, that's really the only relationship where that's really happening. Martina is in a similar boat as Mike. And yet, she feels like a character who is simply reacting to her surroundings and not really doing much by herself. She is very poorly defined in these opening episodes - which is a shame because Preston is such a phenomenal actress. Here, she just plays things broadly in order to get a laugh. It is amusing when she gets to swear and enjoy the come-ons from Mike. But it doesn't really build a satisfying or entertaining character who can stand on her own. She's either against or for the girls moving back home entirely based on what Mike is feeling in the moment. When he makes the argument that they should leave, she's all for it. When he later changes his mind, she agrees like it's nothing. The second episode shows that it's not nothing. Stella and Shea can be horrible and inconsiderate roommates. But again, the show just doesn't dig enough to make those situations funny. Instead of showing the complexities of four adults living in the same house, the second episode gets distracted by Mike and Martina needing to find the spark in their relationship again. Something that turns out to be quite easy in the end too - and not worth all the build up present in the main story.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Pilot" was written by Suzanne Martin and directed by James Burrows.
  • "Present Tense" was written by Suzanne Martin and directed by James Burrows.
  • Alice was really annoying the second she appeared on the screen. She's just such a stereotypical character who takes away from the narrative in very distracting and awful ways. Even a tender moment where she explains to Mike how Bob is feeling in the second episode doesn't take away from the loud, broad and off-putting foundation of the character.
  • It's interesting and noticeable that the romantic interests for both Stella and Shea in the first episode are dropped immediately in the second one. Also the show's conversation about sexual fluidity only further showcased just how incapable it is at talking about a meaningful subject.
  • Stella and Shea are lumped together a lot in these first two episodes. And yet, neither one of them is really able to shine and be a genuine character. They share one scene by themselves in these first two episodes. The rest of the times they are broad characterizations that get in the way of Mike and Martina having sex all over the house.
  • So apparently, Mike is a pilot and Martina is a therapist (with an office at home). Their jobs really aren't important. They are introduced solely to produce a joke and that's it.