By Joe Reinhard, Daily Arts Writer
Published March 30, 2014
At the pilot stage, it can be difficult for a show to establish a clear direction. Of course, this is one of the most, if not the most, important objectives of a good pilot, which is why so many end up falling short. Even a quality premiere can have a harder time attracting an audience if the people watching aren’t sure what to expect from it moving forward. In this regard, FOX’s “Surviving Jack” won’t have that issue. The episode itself isn’t without its problems, but “Surviving Jack” secures a sense of identity with its pilot. It also manages to be pretty darn funny along the way, which doesn’t hurt matters.
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The show may know what it wants to be, but meanwhile its main character Frankie Dunlevy (Conner Buckley, “The Abduction of Zack Butterfield”) is still struggling in that regard. This can be expected, as he is a teenage boy dealing with the problems teenage boys have: meeting girls, going through puberty and fitting in. The show exploits the humor that can be derived from this sort of experience, but with an additional factor that proves to be the best part of the show: Frankie’s father Jack Dunlevy.
Played by Christopher Meloni (“Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”), Jack takes a strict, military-esque approach to parenting, something that doesn’t always go over well with Frankie. Still, Meloni’s character is not only at the show’s comedic backbone (the show would be tough to watch without him), but also its emotional core. Jack isn’t one for emotions himself, but his attempts at trying to help his son transition into adulthood (funny as they may be) are also well-intentioned. It’s this balance between comedy and wholesome family drama that really defines what “Surviving Jack” is about.
Outside of the father-son relationship, the next aspect of the show worth noting is its ’90s setting. The show flounders a bit here, but not because it fails to capture the time period. In fact, it’s perhaps too riddled with ’90s pop culture references. The setting helps define the show’s direction further (and it makes for some funny scenes, as Frankie and his friends try to steal porn from hobos because there’s no Internet), but it’s so obsessed with the decade that it becomes distracting, taking away from the humor. If it managed to be a bit subtler with this element in particular, the jokes surrounding it would seem less forced and go over better.
Despite being indulgent with its ’90s homages, “Surviving Jack” is a show with a certain universal appeal that’s hard to replicate in any age. It presents a nice mix of comedy and relatable — if exaggerated — family drama, so that during its weaker moments (such as when Meloni isn’t on screen), it’s still worth watching. When the show’s funny, it’s really funny, and even the strict Jack Dunlevy himself (who was angry over how “Jurassic Park” was too unrealistic) would approve.