UPDATED: I hate being right. The ratings are in, and Back in the Game had the lowest fall comedy debut on ABC since 2009. It has now been canceled, although ABC will air the entire 13 episode season as opposed to pulling it off the air and shelving the remaining episodes until God knows when.
ABC’s new sitcom Back in the Game is the wrong show at the wrong time on the wrong channel. It has among the more poorly timed show premises in recent memory. It is all but guaranteed to be among the many shows which fail to even make it a full season this year. That’s what makes it suck so much that as far as comedy pilots go it’s better than most.
What we get is basically Bad News Bears meets Trouble With the Curve meets How to Live With Your Parents. Terry “The Cannon” Gannon, Sr. (James Caan) used to be an athlete, but now he’s a drunk couch potato. His daughter, Terry, Jr. (Maggie Lawson), was raised a tomboy, and had been an All-Star softball player until she had her son. After her husband cheats on her with a dental hygienist but blames her for the affair “because [she] refused to get breast implants” Terry dumps him, and takes their son Danny (Griffin Gluck) and moves back home with “The Cannon.” Danny does not care about baseball since his mother has tried not to force anything like that on him the way her father did with her. However, a cute girl at his new school would be impressed if he played Little League baseball.
To be clear, though, we don’t actually see most of that. Instead, that is all handled through exposition. This episode is more focused on getting the characters to the baseball field, first for Little League tryouts where we are introduced to Gigi, a wealthy British wife (a scene-stealing Lenora Crichlow) with rather suspect choice in fashion and what constitutes too much make-up and Dick, the douchenozzle head coach of the team (Ben Koldyke).
Terry’s son isn’t good enough to make the team neither is Gigi’s meaning they and the other misfits don’t have a team. The league can only approve a new team for these cast-offs if someone agrees to coach them (Terry reluctantly volunteers), and someone pays for supplies (good thing Gigi is so rich). That’s only made possible, though, because Terry gets the other head coach to agree to all of it after he loses a bet to her that he couldn’t hit one pitch she threw to him at home plate on the baseball field. She’s a crafty one, though, and actually throws it at his face. As he lays on the ground in pain, she walks off the field remorseless, “Didn’t hit it. See you on the field, Dick.”
So, that’s how the Bad News Bears come together, featuring Terry as their manager. At their first practice, she attempts to deliver an impassioned speech before her father, from the stadium’s announcers booth, instructs her to tell them about the life lessons you learn from baseball. This then becomes an expositional device to allow Terry to tell the players what baseball really means to her is a parade of character background plot points (lost her mother young, father coached in Mexico for a while, abandoned her a period in Mexico because he was in jail, could never date in high school because father physically harassed the boys she liked). It also reveals “The Cannon” as being entirely unapologetic about any of it, and Lawson and Caan are instantly enjoyable as a bickering father and daughter.
Later on at home, Terry discovers that although “The Cannon” never came to a single one of her softball games he taped every single one and has them cataloged in his garage. Lawson has been well-trained while playing Juliett O’Hara on USA’s Psych for the last 7 seasons as a character who has to take whatever minor emotional encouragement she can get from the damaged people around her. As such, her episode-concluding extension of an olive branch to her father in the form of an offer for him to help her out with coaching is effectively touching.
It is particularly impressive that the “The Cannon” remains an unapologetic drunk for the entirety of the pilot with no real hint of an effort on Terry’s part to fix him. One imagines future episodes will begin that process while still using “The Cannon” for hilariously horrible parenting advice, with my personal favorite being his suggestion to Danny as to how to confront a bully:
“Cannon”: “Is that the kid that hit you? Okay, look, here’s what I want you to do. You take your lit cigarette and you flick it over his shoulder [mimics the motion of flicking a cigarette; picks up a bat]. Then take this bat and bash his knees in.
Danny: No, I’m not hitting a kid, and I do not smoke. What is wrong with you?
There is a confidence in the show’s writing and performing that masterfully establishes tone and an admirable sense of pacing. Plus, the casting department knocked it out of the park. Caan, in particular, is far funnier than ever expected. Gluck is a fantastic child actor, and Maggie Lawson continues to make solid arguments for being America’s Sweetheart America just don’t know about yet because only around 3 million people watch episodes of her primary claim to fame, USA’s still-going Pysch (which she still stars in, albeit on a limited basis now). Crichlow has the potential to be a breakout character, and Koldyke as the ostensible antagonist thankfully does not play it nearly as arch as most would. Yet I only embrace it at arm’s length because I fully expect this to last less than a full season.
What on Earth is ABC thinking putting this on in September? This is very clearly going to be a baseball show, despite whatever the producers now say in interviews about not every episode necessarily being set at a Little League baseball field. Although there are areas where baseball is played pretty much year round, it is a summer sport. Back in the Game should have been a summer show, probably on a different network like USA or FX. For example, the FX has their sitcom The League about a fantasy football league. Do they air it during the summer? No, they air it while the National Football League season is going on. Friday Night Lights was about high school football, and after its first season it never aired a season which ended any later than a week or two from the NFL SuperBowl and thus end of the football season at any level.
Granted, Major League Baseball is only just now wrapping up its regular season, and the playoffs will last a couple of weeks into October. So, maybe Back in the Game will still seem topical for another month or so. What happens after that? Does Terry just start coaching these kids in every sport imaginable – football, baseball, hockey, quidditch? And how long is it before Keanu Reeves can guest star as his bookie-turned-inner-city-baseball-coach character from Hard Ball? Better make it quick because the long term chances for this show aren’t good. During the summer, this could fly against less competition and be as formulaic as it wants. However, with so many new shows premiering this season Back in the Game has the look of a show many will just skip entirely based on its premise. Too bad. They have the perfect cast and great writing, but it’s premise guarantees it will be little more than footnote of the 2013 TV season a couple of months from now.
What do you think? Did you like it? Hate it? Think I’m making too big a deal out of the whole baseball thing? Don’t care at all because you don’t like sports, and this sounds like a sports show? Let us know in the comments.