For its first five minutes or so, “Dads” is just a sitcom about two guys who don’t get along with their fathers. It’s not great — the jokes land a little too heavily, the rhythm feels a little off. Those are all correctable problems, though.
The show’s four leads — Seth Green and Giovanni Ribisi as best friends who run a video-game company and Peter Riegert and Martin Mull as their respective fathers — have enough comedy chops that it’s not hard to imagine them finding a groove. So do Brenda Song, who plays an employee of the game company, and Vanessa Lachey, who plays Ribisi’s wife. Comedy pilots often go for big, broad jokes, the better to loudly announce themselves as laff-a-minute machines. Certainly, one would think that father-son relationships are pretty fertile ground for comedy, and as the writers get a better handle on the show, the jokes will start to flow from the characters’ distinct voices, rather than just whatever the easiest laugh line might be.
Two episodes in, that is emphatically not the case. Much has already been written about the offensive, lazy jokes about race in the show’s pilot. So much so, in fact, that FOX is now running a “don’t listen to the critics” ad in which audience members from a taping of “Dads” tell you how funny it is.
“I don’t see how anyone could be offended,” one woman in the ad says. “You just laugh.”
Fine. Let’s say stereotypes about Asians, Latinos and Jews — most of them spouted by Riegert’s and Mull’s characters — don’t bother you, or you prefer not to think about the world while you’re watching a comedy and just want to laugh. Well, “Dads” doesn’t cut it there either — the jokes go for the easiest, broadest possible targets, and they land with an almost audible thud.
What’s so frustrating about the show is that the bones of something decent are there. Ribisi’s Warner can’t say no to his dad, Crawford (Mull), despite his father’s repeated failures in business and blithe unawareness of his shortcomings. Eli (Green) and his dad, David (Riegert), have never been close, and it’s only because David has hit some hard times that he moves in. There should be a lot of material to mine from that premise.
Instead, all we get in the first couple episodes is setup-setup-dad says something offensive-laugh. It’s the kind of sitcom writing that gives sitcoms a bad name.
FOX and the “Dads” producing team — “Ted” co-writers and “Family Guy” veterans Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild are the creators, and Seth MacFarlane is an exec producer — say they aim to “poke fun at stereotypes and bigotries.” That can make for very satisfying comedy — “The Simpsons,” “South Park,” “30 Rock” and yes, “Family Guy,” have made great TV doing just that.
That doesn’t happen here. Song’s character, Veronica, protests when Eli and Warner insist she dress up like a “sexy Asian schoolgirl” and laugh like an anime character in order to impress a group of Chinese investors — yet she does it anyway. Offensive comments by Crawford or David are met with nothing stronger than eye rolls from the other characters (and whoops from the studio audience). That’s probably meant to suggest that Eli and Warner have given up trying to change their fathers for the better, but it comes across as the show tacitly saying that lame, racist jokes are stock in trade on “Dads.”
Really, we all deserve better. To a person, the six regulars are better than their material. For proof, watch Song during her “New Girl” arc last season, or Lachey’s “30 Rock” episodes. Watch Green’s Adult Swim show “Robot Chicken,” Ribisi’s old “Friends” episodes or Riegert and Mull in any number of roles from their prolific careers. They deserve better.
We as an audience deserve better than a slew of jokes trying to have their bigoted cake and eat it too, evoking the ghost of Archie Bunker without ever having the nerve to call out their outmoded thinking the way everyone around Archie did (and the way Archie at least occasionally, begrudgingly conceded a point). Everyone deserves better.
“Dads” premieres at 8 p.m. ET Tuesday (Sept. 17) on FOX.