My face blank and my spirit blasé, I sat in front of the screen on a gloomy Thursday night in hopes of laughing at the outlandish endeavors of the Short family. And yet, there was nothing — nothing in the entirety of that half-hour episode that evoked a genuine laugh or even the slightest chuckle.
While the season three premiere of CBS’s “Life in Pieces” wasn’t particularly awful, it felt generically stale in plot and tired in attempting (for a third year) to level with its prime-time sitcom “competition,” ABC’s “Modern Family.” It’s disheartening that a series with an innovative, vignette-style structure and proficient cast appears to be traveling on a downwards slope, but after two seasons of the same old, scheduled humor, it’s clear why. A show highlighting four distinct, rarely interlinking plotlines simply translates to a whole lot of confusion, not the intended, nicely-segmented chronicles of a chaotic family. Even more perplexing, sometimes there’s a tying-together point, and sometimes there’s just not.
To start off season three, we pick up with newlyweds Matt (Thomas Sadoski, “The Newsroom”) and Colleen (Angelique Cabral, “Enlisted”), whose nightmarish honeymoon is looking materialistically brighter after Colleen is granted two million dollars in settlement for her fall off of their motel balcony. But after the couple receives the bad news that the motel has filed for bankruptcy and the settlement is off, they are forced to abruptly end the whole family’s Vegas getaway. This short story features the all-too-predictable arc of the newly rich losing all of their money, and while it was admittedly entertaining to watch the misfit family pop bottles on a party bus, it felt like this story ends before it gains any ground.
The second vignette focuses on Greg (Colin Hanks, “Dexter”) and Jen’s (Zoe Lister-Jones, “Whitney”) feeble and ineffective attempt to crack their daughter’s pacifier addiction. Again, while this short story brought up some very contemporary and amusing issues, such as Jen’s request that the fictional “pacifier fairy” be a man who battles against sexism, all-in-all, it left me feeling disinterested and unaffected. Even with Hanks and Lister-Jones’s natural chemistry and quarreling, their comedic timing and brilliant facial dialogue are frequently underused in a mediocre plot.
Then there’s the two final stories (which blended together into one in my mind), in which the young and emotionally lost Sophia (Giselle Einsenberg) runs away to visit the rubble of the family’s recently burnt-down house, while elsewhere, Tyler (Niall Cunningham) announces that he and Clementine (Hunter King, “Hollywood Heights”) are “romantically unsyncing” (AKA divorcing). Both of these vignettes open up scenarios for heartfelt child and parent conversation, but these moments come off as forced and easily-fixable. In a sitcom with the premise of illustrating tried and true familial adversity, would it really be that hard to showcase some authenticity?
The only real redeeming quality to “Life in Pieces” is its star-studded roster of talent, which shows up to play no matter what uninspiring tropes and worn-out plot lines they are constrained to. The cast carries the series on its shoulders; it’s just regrettable that we only see so little of them in such fast-paced episodes. If you blink, you might miss Hanks masterfully throw some side-eye after a witty remark or James Brolin (“Westworld”), as family patriarch John, curmudgeonly react to his family’s bizarre antics. And if you miss that, you’ve essentially missed all the entertainment.
After enduring two seasons of similar dissatisfaction and yearning for originality, I unfortunately came to expect this lackluster of a “Life in Pieces” premiere. After all, the title slide reads: “One big family. Four short stories. Every week.” And if that doesn’t sound like the basis of every sitcom ever, then you’re likely still stuck on creator Justin Adler’s bandwagon — believing in the unforeseen potential of this imitated, insipid comedy.