Notwithstanding the episode that unwisely went to Booger Town, I found that first season of CBS’s Life in Pieces to be a pleasant diversion, a reliable family sitcom with strong performances from a marvelous cast that offered a 22-minute break from darker dramas that dominate my DVR. It was a nice palate cleanser — Modern Family meets Parenthood — and as the first season progressed and the series found its footing, it only got better.
As too often happens with family sitcoms, however, the groove that Life in Pieces found quickly turned into a rut, and rather than building out the characters, Justin Adler and his writing room zeroed in on one or two traits in each character and exaggerated them, like in Friends, after the writers discovered that the audience reacted well to Joey’s love of sandwiches and made Joey’s love of sandwiches his defining characteristic. They have Joey’d Life in Pieces.
Last season, the sitcom managed to mine a few truths about parenting, tease out the occasional heartwarming moment, and take full advantage of its stellar cast: Colin Hanks, Betsy Brandt, Thomas Sadowski, Zoe Lister-Jones, Dan Bakkedahl, Angelique Cabral, Dianne Wiest, and James Brolin. This season, it’s gone broad and the results have been increasingly ugly. Sadwoski and Cabral are stuck in the stages of a relationship routine (moving in together, their engagement, wedding planning, etc.); Colin Hanks is now Dumb Stay-at-Home Dad; Zoe Lister-Jones offers nothing but cynical wisecracks (unless she’s dreaming about sleeping with her mother-in-law); Bakkedahl is the super creepy, ogling Dad; Brandt is the dimwitted mom; and Dianne Wiest and James Brolin are either talking about sex or taking turns as the oblivious grandparent.
While the first season of Life in Pieces could hold its own with the first season of Modern Family, the second season of Life in Pieces has quickly deteriorated into seventh season Modern Family. It’s cliches and stereotypes and recycled jokes, and while it is still a single-camera comedy, it’s taken on the tenor of CBS’s laugh-track comedies. This week’s episode hit rock bottom. Hanks struggled to gain the attention of his infant daughter by trying to make her jealous by playing with a stranger’s kid; Sadowski sought the blessing of his prospective father-in-law, who left his trophy wife; Brandt refused to concede that she needed glasses even as her kids took advantage of her bad eyesight; and then Greg Grunberg guest starred for some reason as an uncircumcised guy who had to admit to his girlfriend that he wasn’t Jewish, a vignette that ended with him smashing a photo of Brolin’s mustachioed Mom and sleeping in between Brolin and Wiest. It was dumb, but really, no dumber than the rest of the season, which often features a horrible lesbian stereotype who stalks her roommate (Cabral) and wants to wrestle with Sadowski.
Usually, sitcoms peak in seasons two and three, but Life in Pieces skipped its middle season run and jumped straight to its jump-the-shark season, which is a shame, because for those of us who rely on the occasional network sitcom to offer respite from prestige dramas, our choices are now even fewer and further between.