“I Feel Bad” meets my first requirement for a modern sitcom: It doesn’t have a laugh track. Unfortunately, I wasn’t supplying many laughs of my own during the first two episodes, which are available on NBC.com. (The series returns Oct. 4 when it takes its regular NBC timeslot at 9:30 p.m. Eastern Thursdays.) It has some smile-worthy moments, and Sarayu Blue of “No Tomorrow” and “Blockers” is game for the lead role of Emet, but it’s ultimately not funny enough.
The series springs from the zeitgeisty notion that mothers are put-upon, but they always put up with it. “I Feel Bad,” though, will let us hear the inner thoughts of one of those mothers – even if her societally appropriate actions don’t match up with what she’s thinking. The show, created by sitcom-penning veteran Aseem Batra, digs into Emet’s guilt over almost every thought that runs through her head. Another ongoing thread is Emet’s quest to find 20 minutes of peace per day, as that’s what keeps her going.
In the first episode (which is an extended version of the trailer above), Emet’s and David’s (Paul Adelstein) young daughter joins her school’s too-risque dance team, and Emet aims to support her daughter (the societally correct thing) and bury her gut reaction to ban her daughter from participating (the motherly thing). By getting a colleague to complain to the principal, she inadvertently gets the school to open up the team to boys, making things worse. This isn’t a bad running gag, built on the absurdity of an age-inappropriate take on the Black Eyed Peas’ “My Humps,” but nor does it escalate the laughs as it goes forward.
Episode two’s premise is late-season “Seinfeld”-ian, as Emet – tasked with checking on her neighbors’ house while they’re on vacation – finds her 20 minutes of sanctuary and then some in the spotless house. Her daily dose of guilt comes when David wants to join her, and she doesn’t really want him to, but she figures it’s a case of sharing the secret or losing her getaway altogether. Again, it’s a premise worthy of a smirk, not guffaws.
Emet works at a game-design company, which is a refreshingly colorful workplace, somewhat like the product-design company in “Powerless.” The “humor” premise – and unfortunately, it doesn’t stop after one episode – is that her four male colleagues fit the stereotypes of men and train her to behave more like a man in order to achieve her life goals and be happier.
While the actors are likeable, their behavior is shallow. In an early scene, Emet instructs them in how female game characters need not be designed with bowling-ball boobs – a gag that immediately dates “I Feel Bad,” as the gaming industry has made notable strides away from that cliche for years now. I feel bad for these actors having to play nerd-guy stereotypes.
Another running joke is that Emet’s parents are always around – in part to help care for Emet’s and David’s three kids, in part to annoy Emet with their quirky behavior, such as the mom washing clothes in the tub as she bathes or gyrating to demonstrate the dance moves she finds offensive. Two likable performers — Madhur Jaffrey and Brian George – play the roles, but this is light sitcom fare.
It’s odd that NBC is touting episode three as a series premiere of sorts; it makes me wonder if they have retooled the series. There might indeed be a better show in here somewhere, but with so much good TV out there, “I Feel Bad” falls short of staying on my schedule. And I honestly don’t feel terrible about it.