New Fox sitcom ‘Surviving Jack’ could be a winner

New Fox sitcom ‘Surviving Jack’ could be a winner

SURVIVING JACK: Jack (Christopher Meloni, R) has a man-to-man conversation with Frankie (Connor Buckley, L), in SURVIVING JACK, airing Thursday, March 27 (9:30 -10:00 PM EDT) on FOX. (Photo credit: Beth Dubber/FOX)

WASHINGTON, March 30, 2014 – Without a lot of fanfare, Fox unveiled “Surviving Jack,” its newest half-hour sitcom this past Thursday. The new show springs from writer (and series scriptwriter) Justin Halpern’s goofy, bestselling pair of growing-up-weird books, “Sh*t My Dad Says” and the more recent “I Suck at Girls,” the latter of which serves as the springboard for the show.

The Justin Halpern bestseller that started it all.
Dust jacket of the Justin Halpern bestseller that started it all. (Creative Commons photo image via Flickr)

While ostensibly meant to be humorous takes on the always painful process of growing up in the U.S., it doesn’t take long for a reader of Halpern’s books to figure out that it’s his physician dad—a tough, rough-talking Navy vet—who’s the focal point of the author’s literary endeavors.

Ditto for this Fox TV sitcom adaptation, and hooray for Halpern and Fox. I don’t know a lot about the current thought patterns of average TV viewers today. But I, for one, have been getting sick and tired for at least a decade now of the standard portrayal of ‘90s and oughties sitcom TV dads, particularly those of the Caucasian persuasion—assuming that the average sitcom family even has a dad in residence, that job description apparently having become politically incorrect.

The modern TV dad today, whether possessing a Ph.D. or a high school GED “incomplete” is usually portrayed as a crude, sub-normal idiot with an IQ that would embarrass a chimpanzee and a brain that resides somewhere within his tighty-whities. It’s as if the average suburban dad, good or bad, has become the last species on earth that everyone is allowed to trash 24/7 without being labeled “mean spirited” or “offensive.”

Thankfully, “Surviving Jack” has a real potential for providing the perfect antidote to all this hop on pop TV trash. Slightly remodeling the family landscape of his books, Halpern fictionalizes his own family as the suburban California Dunlevys.

Standing in for Halpern is gangling and not-very-popular high school freshman Frankie (Connor Buckley) who usually hangs out with his equally socially unacceptable pals Mikey (a brooding but loyal Tyler Foden) and George (Kevin Hernandez), a short and not very hip Hispanic.

On the female side of the ledger are Frankie’s terminally devious, impossibly good looking and likely promiscuous sister Rachel (Claudia Lee) and his bright, assertive and attractive mom Joanne (Rachael Harris).

Formerly known as “Law & Order: SVU” Detective Stabler, Chris Meloni shows demonstrates his surprising comic acting chops in “Surviving Jack.” (Creative Commons license, image via Flickr)

But, of course, the key to the family dynamic and the ultimate focal point of the show is dear old dad, the eponymous Jack, portrayed here—big surprise—by Chris Meloni, aka the former Detective Stabler of “Law & Order SVU.”

Borrowing some tough and blunt overtones from his most famous character, Meloni nonetheless unveils a brilliant and somewhat unexpected comic touch in this very different new role in both the series pilot (the initial episode, aired March 27) and in this coming week’s new episode.

Initial reviews unfairly and simplistically accuse Meloni’s “Jack” character of being, in many respect, the typical, crude, Neanderthal dad. I wonder if they were watching the same show I did. As one of the series’ scriptwriters, Halpern has cleaned up the “dad” dialogue from his book, where dad employs, early and often, the ubiquitous f-word, adapting it for every part of speech.

The dialogue he provides for Meloni is occasionally frank but considerably airbrushed for the TV audience. Yet it’s actually funnier than the material in the book because, in a way, it’s more in keeping with Jack’s ex-Navy physician character who blends some of his former shipboard crudeness of expression with the cleaned up circumlocutions of a doctor or a surgeon—or, in Jack’s case, an oncologist.

Given the day-to-day miseries and disasters they encounter in their chosen profession, nearly any M.D. gradually becomes more blunt, frank, but accepting of the essential sordidness of the human condition, often treating both sex and disease in a matter-of-fact and occasionally even dismissive fashion. It’s kind of a “been there, done that” approach.

As adapted to this TV sitcom, Jack’s word choices and manner of speech more often than not cloak any crudeness or matter-of-factness in educated elegance and workarounds, making his dialogue, responses, and exchanges all the more funny for avoiding most of the four-letter words.

Somehow, Meloni grabs onto this hook instinctively, wryly enjoying his intellectual superiority, which is sharpened further by his ability to surprise and occasionally to shock. And it’s all delivered in a dry, almost deadpan style, the kind of with we generally attribute to British, not American comics and comic actors.

You have to admire Meloni for seriously getting this as it makes all the difference in this series, potentially setting it apart from the usual sitcom pack, assuming the average, jaded sitcom viewer can appreciate the appearance of a little intelligence and adult wit in his or her otherwise humdrum TV repertoire.

You also have to give Meloni credit for immediately grasping the fact that Jack is, in fact, not an insensitive thug—also true of “dad” in Halpern’s books. Like “dad,” Jack, as a somewhat world-weary oncologist, naturally hates beating around the bush. He’d rather cut to the chase and deal with facts while not worrying too much about personal feelings, which he generally views as a perilous detour around facts and truths.

When son Frankie uncomfortably hems and haws about girl troubles, Jack bluntly—and correctly—informs him that such nervousness is a useless crock, parsing the difference between adolescent flirtation and the later discovery of an actual life-partner.

In this week’s episode—minor spoiler alert—Jack appoints himself coach of Frankie and his friends to help them in their objective of gaining spots on the varsity baseball team. But instead of pumping them with false, feel-good “self-esteem,” he quickly zeroes in on their not-immediately-obvious weaknesses and ruthlessly attempts to destroy them, lest they destroy the boys’ chance to win that varsity slot. It’s guy tough-love at its best.

Actress Rachael Harris. (Credit: David Shankbone via Wikipedia)
Actress Rachael Harris plays Jack’s feisty wife, Joanne in “Surviving Jack.” (Credit: David Shankbone via Wikipedia)

Critical sniping aside, this is far from nastiness or crudeness on Jack’s part. It’s the kind of frank, realistic, honest fathering that’s become tragically devalued in our own times, swamped at least in part by an unaccepting gender feminism that refuses to abide any manifestation of the Y-chromosome as positive.

Even better, again largely due to Meloni’s thorough and comprehensive grasp of the material, it’s immediately clear that Jack is not doing any of this tough-love stuff out of meanness of spirit or a desire to belittle or demean his son or others to make himself feel superior.

It’s clear that Jack is firm in his belief that the truth is actually the shortest distance between two points, and he’s decided that to deal with such matters in imprecise or in a round-about shortchanges not only himself, but his son and his family as well.

With Jack firmly established as this show’s anchor character, all the other actors in the show have an immediate focus and rallying point. Jack is clearly the leader, the paterfamilias here—again quite politically incorrect these days, particularly in Hollywood.

But making things a lot more fun and a lot more realistic is the way this family’s balance actually works. A case in point is Jack’s relationship with his wife, Joanne. Joanne is not Edith Bunker. Prior to the pilot episode, she’s made a decision to stay at home and raise the kids until they are in high school. But now that time has arrived, so she’s arranged, with Jack’s enthusiastic cooperation, to head back to college and pursue a law degree.

Jack reasons, correctly I think, that Joanne’s had his back through medical school and through the kids’ early years, so now it’s his time to return the favor by trimming some of his hospital hours so he can be around for the kids at critical times. It’s fair and logical, and it’s remarkable that decisions like this aren’t more commonplace in real life than they are. But again, this is a show that’s staking out new turf.

What’s new as well is why it’s so easy for Jack to make a decision like this. He is still madly in love with Joanne. Even the kids know that, in a pinch, they take a back seat to this kind of utter devotion. The likely reason—whether they totally approve or not, they somehow know they’re getting a very serious and effective example of what they should expect to achieve in any future relationship of their own. It’s a valuable lesson, and one this society overlooks to its over all detriment.

As Joanne, the energetic and attractive Rachael Harris gets it just as right as Meloni gets Jack. She’s feisty, independent, yet just as devoted to Jack as he is to her. Harris’ Joanne knows she’s got the deal of the century in Jack, but is never afraid to oppose him if she thinks she needs to.

The pair disagree, actually, with some frequency, but their mutual respect always enables them to work things out without real nastiness or residual resentment. They respect each other too much for petty nonsense like that.

Frankie is not quite sure what to do with the porn mags he's swiped from a pair of homeless dudes. But dad will have some ideas. (PR still from new Fox sitcom "Surviving Jack.")
Frankie is not quite sure what to do with the porn mags he’s swiped from a pair of homeless dudes. But dad will have some ideas. (PR still from new Fox sitcom “Surviving Jack.”)

Since mom and dad have their act together about 90% of the time, the kids fall naturally, if occasionally reluctantly, into place. Frankie is intimidated and occasionally irritated by his dad. But Frankie—as played in a generously understated manner by Connor Buckley) also is well aware that he’s a wimp and so is inclined to actually listen to Jack when he informs him, in no uncertain terms, how to shape up, win a few rounds in the game of life, and not let sentiment deter him from being effective.

Jack and Frankie are like Ward and Beaver Cleaver but with one big difference: Jack doesn’t care much for moral philosophy. He’s more focused on teaching his son what really works in life, and doesn’t like to waste time getting there. Brutal, yes, occasionally. But Frankie tends to figure it out in the end. There’s a grudging male respect and love here that once again you don’t often see on TV.

Daughter Rachel will likely be the real piece of work here as this series progresses, something that’s easy to see courtesy of Claudia Lee’s wicked, spot-on performance in this role.

While Rachel may not be a chess player, she nonetheless plays both domestic and high school life like a three-dimensional chess game, and in the early going, we can already see that she likes to be a move or three ahead of mom, dad, and any adolescent male that suits this week’s fancy.

On one level, Rachel is a nice kid. She knows she has an exceptional set of parents, although, as a typical adolescent, she kicks at any restrictions, even those she knows are directly attributable to her own bad behavior. But there is some sense of residual danger in Lee’s portrayal of her character, and this could be a very intriguing aspect of this show in episodes yet to come.

Regarding those episodes, we get to the unfortunate problem with this uniquely promising new sitcom. For some reason, Fox seems to regard it as a low-percentage shot, and may not be willing to support it to the point where it catches on.

Claudia Lee's Rachel will likely give Dad Chris Meloni some heartburn. (PR photo via Ms. Lee's website)
Claudia Lee’s Rachel will likely give Dad Chris Meloni some heartburn. (PR photo via Ms. Lee’s website)

One thing that’s already against the show is the fact that it’s a very, very late season replacement. Fox has only ordered eight episodes of the show, and by this coming Thursday evening, we’ll already have seen two of the eight. That’s not very long to establish a loyal viewership before the endless summer reruns and forgetfulness blot out viewer memories, given the fact that a mere eight episodes are not enough to rerun for even half the summer.

Other programs will get some of the slots, and that doesn’t bode well for this show’s return in the fall. So one has to ask Fox: are you really serious about giving this show a chance, or are you just filling dead space for eight weeks?

Another possible problem, pointed out by the L.A. Times’ Ryan Faughnder, is viewership numbers for the pilot. Faughnder noted that “Jack” “opened with a 1.3 in the demo and 5.1 million viewers overall, which is not a spectacular start for a show with an ‘American Idol’ lead-in. ‘Idol’ itself earned a 1.9 in 18-49, flat with last week’s series low.”

Fox at least appears to be giving “Jack” a break by employing its onetime hit show, “American Idol,” as the lead-in for the new sitcom. But Faughnder notes that “Jack” didn’t retain all of “Idol’s” viewership.

Parsing the numbers, however, as well as the current situation with “American Idol,” we’d observe that a .6 demo drop-off—which put the new show lower than competitors on some other networks—is not really so awful when you consider that “American Idol” itself has lost much of its once huge viewership and may no longer be the lead-in some of the Fox muckety-mucks might think it is.

In any event, it is what it is. Fox is not giving this year’s most interesting—and arguably most subversive—very much of a chance to catch the brass ring before the summer hiatus, and that’s too bad. It has the potential to be an interesting, breakthrough show if only the network were to promote it more effectively.

We’re particularly delighted by this show’s first rate cast, all of whom work well as an ensemble. We’re particularly impressed by the subtle, funny, deep yet sneaky performance of Chris Meloni in the title role. So hey, Fox, give ‘em a chance already, eh?

We’d urge viewers who are looking for something a little different and a little more family oriented—in the right way—to check out “Surviving Jack” this Thursday, April 3 at 9:30 EDT. Suburban dads who are disgusted with the way they’re constantly put down on current boob tube offerings will find this show particularly attractive and subversive, much as many moviegoers viewed Disney’s unconventionally non-PC “The Incredibles” a decade ago.

Yes, “Surviving Jack” is unconventional sitcom fare, but who’s really interested in tired old conventions any more? It’s a show that should appeal to adults and adolescents alike, assuming they’re not already addicted to phony reality shows or looking for the usual and predictable smutty jokes. But we’ll just have to watch the eight episodes we’re going to get and see what happens next.

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Terry Ponick
Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17