Fox’s new sitcom, “The Cool Kids,” will make those old enough to remember it feel like they are watching their old boxy TV on a 1980s Thursday night, blissfully unaware that 30 years later they will be living in Thunderdome. Created by “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia’s” Charlie Day, the show is not so much an homage to the ’80s along the lines of “The Goldbergs,” but an actual 1980s sitcom that happened to have been made this year.
The format is traditional and familiar. This is an old folks’ comedy in the style of “The Sunshine Boys” or “Golden Girls.” At the start we meet Hank (David Alan Grier), Charlie (Martin Mull), and Sid (Leslie Jordan) at their coveted table in the cafeteria of their senior living home. They are mourning the recent loss of their friend Jerry, and wondering who might take the prized fourth seat at theirs, the cool kids’ table.
When Margaret (Vicky Lawrence), a spunky and attractive new arrival, invites herself to take the seat, grumpy Hank, the leader of the group, isn’t happy, but Charlie and Sid, as well as the audience at home know instantly that, for better or worse, she is in. This is the new crew.
Sitcom pilots are often awkward. The first “Seinfeld” has some cringeworthy moments, and the first episode of the American “Office” is downright unwatchable. “The Cool Kids,” in large part likely owing to the experienced ensemble, actually lands running in its first episode, focused on throwing a party in memory of poor, deceased Jerry.
Mull, whose Charlie is affable and bumbling, and Jordan, whose Sid is gay and a bit over the top, are the more purely comic characters, and they know and execute their jobs very well. Lawrence and Grier kind of co-occupy the straight man role, at times playing off each other for laughs. They also show the beginnings of some really solid comic and maybe even romantic chemistry.
The old folks’ sitcom is a classic and well-established genre with essentially the same form as a family sitcom, except the old folks are the kids. Artemis Pebdani, who has had a recurring role in “Always Sunny,” is left as the tough-as-nails, middle-aged director of the old folks’ home, tasked with keeping our comic heroes in line. Day himself plays Chet, the handyman. All in all, every box is checked in the ’80s “look how silly these old people are being” format.
What is so refreshing about the show, especially in this day and age, is how politically and socially meaningless it is. Lawrence, a veteran of the Carol Burnett show and later the star of “Mama’s Family,” is particularly biting and funny. But while there exists some tension about a woman threatening Hank’s dominance over the group, the overall theme is hijinks, not moral or gender messages. A few minutes in, viewers feel the tension roll off their shoulders as they realize, “Oh, this is just going to be funny.”
Day and the writers do a masterful job recreating the ’80s sitcom without making it feel like a relic. In many ways, a retirement home, where the denizens are past the point of having important careers or tense issues to deal with (other than impending death), are free to just exist in a way that so few people do anymore. The pressing matter is whatever is in front of them, whether that is stealing a car or running out on the bill for the party.
If there is a weakness, and again this is common to sitcom pilots, it’s a lack of punch lines. The talented ensemble and crisp writing keeps us interested and entertained, but few knockout punches are delivered that garner out-loud laughs. But there is every reason to believe this could come in time, as it has for so many other shows, when the characters and relationships are better established. Just as friendships become funnier over time, so too do most sitcoms.
There is a lot of reason to hope that this show, with its talented cast and oddball creator, can become a very successful and funny entry into the sitcom ecosystem. The tried and true formula of limited characters and locations, along with long-form scenes that let comedy build, is a welcome reminder of the sitcom’s golden age.
So turn off the smartphone, gather the family, and maybe even make some TV dinners to take in a show that will take you back. It’s not fast-paced, it doesn’t have clever cutaways or monologues, and it doesn’t tackle the issues of the day, but honestly, don’t we get enough of that? In “The Cool Kids,” some old-school comedians with real chops are a treat to spend time with. I look forward to where Day, his writers, and the cast can take it.