Wednesday, September 19, 2018

TV REVIEW: NBC's 'I Feel Bad'

NBC will premieres its new original comedy series I Feel Bad on Wednesday, September 19 at 10/9c. following the season finale of America's Got Talent. The comedy stars Sarayu Blue, Paul Adelstein, Zach Cherry, James Buckley, Johnny Pemberton, Lily Rose Silver, Rahm Braslaw, Brian George and Madhur Jaffrey.

Read on for my thoughts on the new comedy after screening its first three episodes.

NBC's new original comedy series I Feel Bad opens with an omnipresent voiceover from its lead character Emet (Sarayu Blue) saying: "Here's what every woman knows. We feel bad about something almost every day." The series presents a blistering look at modern-day gender dynamics as they play out in the different generations of a mixed race family. That logline makes the show seem very prescient and timely. It's examining issues and stories that are incredibly relevant and framing them in different ways to subvert the tropes of the family comedy formula. However, the execution isn't quite there just yet. In fact, there are a number of problems in the new show throughout its first three episodes. As such, I can't fully recommend it just yet. The issues extend beyond just a dreadful pilot as well. The subsequent two don't completely rectify some off-putting material even though Blue is such a commanding central force for the series. Blue finally has the chance to be a compelling lead after several years of strong supporting performances on one-season shows. She absolutely deserves this spotlight. Moreover, the show can absolutely be praised for its inclusive statistics. As the recent Emmy Awards pointed out, Hollywood loves patting itself on the back when it comes to offering more diverse stories than ever before. There is still so much work to be done though. And yet, a show with a woman of Indian descent in the leading role is a powerful visual. As such, the show can become a universal comedy while still being very specific about the many different ways in which this family views the world.

However, the show goes to some very broad places in its opening episodes that really don't showcase what it does well. The opening stories are all about Emet fearing she's becoming her mother, trying to get some time to herself and lying to her children. None of these are stories that she should inherently feel guilty or bad about. That's the basic premise of the show. The world has conditioned women to always feel like they are slacking or not worthy if they make these requests known to the people around them. As such, it's vital that Emet speaks out against the double standard for her gender. She's always being asked to take care of everyone - her husband, her children, her parents, her coworkers, etc. There are a lot of people who demand a lot from her. It's a crazy and hectic life that she is living. It makes her such a relatable character. However, the actual execution of these stories ensures that they go to some extreme places to the point where Emet should possibly feel some guilt about what she does. It's a very tricky balance for the show to walk because it could just be reaffirming some central ideas about what is acceptable behavior. None of it is incredibly funny at the moment either. The show is going to broad places in the service of jokes. It's all being played as sincere and grounded as well. This is simply the latest family that doesn't quite have their lives together but survive because of their love and appreciation of one another. It's a formula that has been done a lot. And yet, it is still very effective as well. When the show focuses on the family, it actually has the potential to be charming and sweet. With a little more specificity for the husband, parents and children, then it could really be a strong comedy.

Of course, the show isn't just a family comedy either. It splits its focus pretty evenly between Emet's life at home and her job. She works as the only woman on a team of video game designers. It too could offer a blistering look at the toxicity of this male-dominated profession. And yes, the story does highlight the gross and domineering qualities of the dude-bro nerd culture of the modern world. However, it also wants the audience to enjoy and laugh with the characters in this environment. It wants the audience to see things both ways. So even though Emet's coworkers are absolutely despicable people, it's still suppose to be genuine when they care about her getting a personal space or trying to protect her daughter from being overly sexualized in a dance class. None of it works though. This aspect of the show has the potential to completely derail any of the momentum that the show builds. Johnny Pemberton, James Buckley and Zach Cherry are the series regular characters in this environment. They are all perfectly indistinguishable from one another. They are all horrible guys who present themselves as sweet nerds even though they treat women in some truly despicable ways. The show expects the audience to laugh when one story features the three of them spying on a girl at a bar with a drone and then flying the machine right into her. It's not funny. It seems to go against everything that the show is trying to say with Emet. That could be the point. But again, the execution isn't there to make this a necessary component of the show. It works as a family comedy. It doesn't work as a workplace ensemble. It's a section of the show that should either be dropped completely or re-conceived by bringing in several new faces who offer more refreshing and self-aware perspectives.

Moreover, there is the question of if I Feel Bad can be a success on NBC. It once again feels like an attempt by the other broadcast networks to replicate the success ABC has had with its comedy brand. It takes a family that hasn't been seen on television a whole lot and puts them in a very specific world with writers who understand those cultural experiences and how to make them funny. It makes me curious about how this show would have been coming out of the ABC development team? Would they have been able to provide the notes necessary to fix some of these issues in the script stage before a woeful pilot was delivered to the network? Right now, it's mostly the show trying to figure out what works on the fly. That's perfectly fine too. So many comedies don't start off strong. It usually takes a couple of episodes for them to work out the kinks and actually play to the strengths of the cast. I Feel Bad has some strong actors in its central family. Blue is joined by Paul Adelstein, Madhur Jaffrey and Brian George. They are all charming in their own way. They should just be relied on more in the future. I'm curious to see if the show can develop into the version of itself that actually excels with everything it is trying to do. But again, will it have the time to find it on NBC? It's a question worth asking even though the network has seen a comedy resurgence over the last few years.