In a season full of an unnatural amount of nostalgia-fueled sitcoms (The Goldbergs, Growing Up Fisher), but Surviving Jack—though late to the party— leads the pack in quality and comedy by a long stretch. The Goldbergs wasn’t my cup of tea, Growing Up Fisher is decent but not unforgettable by any means, whereas Surviving Jack came out of the gate last night with a fantastic pilot that connected with me on every level.
Shockingly enough, this is from the mind of Justin Halpern who’s responsible for CBS’s misfire from a few years back, S*** My Dad Says, and much of that same team is intact behind the scenes but with the major and vital addition of Scrubs’ Bill Lawrence who brings the intelligence and warmth he’s known for to this incarnation. This also takes place in a much earlier era than S*** My Dad Says with Justin as a squirrely teenager facing off with his father who’s taking on more parenting responsibilities when his mom goes back to school.
I can’t say enough about how terrific this show is. A winning cast led by a stellar performance from Chris Meloni, an actor who can really thrive in any role, be it comedic or dramatic (or, for us Scrubs fan, involving puppets). Rachel Harris plays his wife, Joanne and Connor Buckley plays Justin. Meloni’s performance steals the show but he and Harris have a nice, believable chemistry and Buckley does a good job serving as funny, sympathetic foil for his father. These are elements that are vital because as good as Meloni is, he needs a strong cast surrounding him playing his family to really ensure it all comes together (Claudia Lee is also good as the other member of the Dunlevy family, Jack’s daughter, Rachel).
There’s two ways this show could have blown up in its own face; it could have relied too much on 90s references or it could have done a poor job balancing the abrasive humor with lighter, sentimental moments. Fortunately, it avoids both traps. Comedies that take place within an era can sometimes be guilty of lazily inserting a past fad and assuming that the mere mention of something silly that was once popular counts as a joke; The Goldbergs did this a lot in the pilot (as I’ve said before, it’s not one I stuck with beyond that and I understand that it’s gotten better) and Surviving Jack does it a tad, but not nearly as much and is pretty skilled at mining smart comedy out of those references.
The tougher challenge was to present a character like Jack as strangely likeable, despite saying and doing a number of questionable (if not, downright awful) things. They succeed as establishing his love for his wife early on (he’s cutting back hours as a doctor so she can go back to school and he can watch the kids) and despite dispelling boat loads of bad advice and teaching Justin to drive in the most reckless way possible, the closing scene where he gives a heart to heart about Justin’s first kiss was just sweet enough while still feeling like something the character would actually say. They have effectively made him a drill sergeant on the outside with a teddy bear deep on the inside and a lot of shows fail to strike the right balance when pulling something like that off.
There is a pretty constant string of one-liners throughout the episode and I found myself laughing out loud quite often. Part of me is tempted to include a bunch of my favorite quotes in this review, but instead, I’m gonna just recommend that you give the show a shot for yourself. If you like slightly edgy comedy tucked inside a traditional family comedy format (with some 90’s love, to boot), then Jack will be right up your alley. Even if you don’t think the show looks like something you’d be interested in, I’d still at least watch the pilot because it was much better than I imagined it would be and I think most will be impressed as well.
My love for FOX’s other mid-season comedy, Enlisted, is well-documented and though the writing on the wall for that show is pretty clear, I wish it was going to be around for a few seasons. But aside from FOX’s cruel scheduling of the series, it was always going to be a slightly tough sell. It’s a military comedy and while there’s clearly been hits of that nature in the past, I feel like it’s still a hard thing to get people to give a shot to, unfortunately. Surviving Jack, on the other hand, is a family comedy (that you should by no means watch with kids) and it’s the sort of thing that should easily attract a large audience….but got very weak premiere numbers last night after American Idol. That truly is a shame because it’s terrible funny, Meloni is doing unbelievable work and the pilot is one of the best half-hours of television you’ll watch this year. Please check it out. I can’t bear another good FOX comedy cancelled before its time. This show deserves a chance and honestly, you work hard, you’ve got a busy life, you deserve to laugh. So watch Surviving Jack. Thanks.