In recent years, class has been the big unsaid in TV family comedies.
The genre that gave us the Bundys, the Conners and the Simpsons – all families whose neighborhoods were an impassable distance from great wealth – had shifted, over the past decade, to the Pritchetts of “Modern Family” and the “Black-ish” Johnsons. These families, the standard-bearers of the family sitcom in the 2010s, had enough worries to fuel multi-season runs, but the money rarely seemed to be one of them. It left on the table one of the major stories of American family life in a time of growing insecurity, and also created a kind of strange feeling of lack of air. If these people could afford to do anything, where was the tension?
If nothing else, it’s refreshing to see the sitcom taking up social class as a concern. The next step is to find something worth saying. (Recent series such as NBC’s “Indebted” and CBS’s “Broke” have run into this problem.) ABC’s “Home Economics” has a nifty central idea and playful cast, and although its first two episodes lack a certain sure footing, there is potential. The challenge the show will face will be finding ways to complicate rather than simply rephrase its premise.
And that premise is quite elegant. Three siblings who live close together occupy three particular rungs of the social ladder, with Jimmy Tatro enjoying a kind of light and easy wealth, Caitlin McGee struggling to keep her family afloat and Topher Grace somewhere in the dark. environment. Tatro, from “American Vandal,” brings a kind of benevolent arrogance to the role. Son Connor has what his siblings want, and plenty of nasty traits to boot, and yet Tatro’s puppy energy makes the role shine. McGee, paired with “Saturday Night Live’s” Sasheer Zamata, bounces off him with an astringent note of unwelcome resentment. Grace – playing a novelist dependent on her siblings for material – tends towards a kind of cerebral alertness that works well.
This dynamic compensates for certain shortcomings. The children of these three siblings aren’t significantly singled out in the first two episodes, and Grace’s wife (Karla Souza) doesn’t have much to do in the same way. The siblings’ parents (Nora Dunn and Phil Reeves) play favorites, preferring Tatro’s character as he promised to pay for their vacation, and speak insulting, broken Spanish to Souza’s character; it’s over-the-top venality and cruelty that puts a strain on what is otherwise a fairly down-to-earth spectacle. (Similarly, edgy humor stabs, such as when one child asks another about their dolls’ pronouns, tend to introduce bitterness beyond the overriding comedic tone.) And the detail of the intrigue that Grace fears her writing about her siblings will end up turning her siblings against her tends to dismiss the development – they’ll probably find out, down the road, and snap, but her attempts to cover up her borrowing simply feel like they are delaying the inevitable.
All in all, though, it’s just the start of a show with a healthy dose of preoccupation and a good sense of who its three leads are. It’s worth hoping the series continues the instinct that led to developing three highly-watched characters and refines the parts of the series that aren’t quite there yet. There are certainly stories that “Home Economics” is equipped to tell that hits from the recent past wouldn’t touch; I hope he is able to last long enough to tell them.
“Home Economics” airs on ABC on April 7 at 8:30 p.m. ET