In this age of easily accessible TV, there’s no such thing as timeslot battles anymore, but for the sake of fun, let’s pit “The Unicorn” (CBS) against “Perfect Harmony” (NBC). The half-hour sitcoms air at the same time on Thursdays.
“The Unicorn” had the best trailer of any fall network show, and it’s also the early frontrunner for best network newcomer. Following two atrocious years of network debuts, this is the best pilot I’ve seen since “This Is Us” in 2016, and I can’t remember the last sitcom that was this assured out of the gates. It doesn’t have the most original premise, but it’s a cute one, and different from other current shows.
Starring Walton Goggins (often a movie villain) as Wade, the titular widower who enters the dating scene, “The Unicorn” is perfectly cast and offers easy, natural laughs. Under the guidance of creators Bill Martin, Mike Schiff and Grady Cooper, there’s no mean-spiritedness, but also not much risque humor (by today’s standards) as Wade’s friends and eventually his two daughters encourage him in his understandably bumbling dating exploits.
Wade’s home life with Grace (Ruby Jay) and Natalie (Makenzie Moss) has one extreme scripted element: his freezer full of meals from the wake one year earlier. But it’s a warm environment, both in its lighting and the comfortable way, for example, Natalie is excited to take the two dogs out for a walk when she gets home from school. No piece of humor or conflict is particularly weighty — even when Wade catches Grace in her room with the neighbor boy — yet the loss of the family’s matriarch doesn’t come off as trivial, either.
Wade’s friends also feel lived-in. They are a pair of couples: Forrest (Rob Corrdry) and Delia (Michaela Watkins), and Ben (Omar Benson Miller) and Michelle (Maya Lynne Robinson). In the pilot episode, neighborhood hottie Tracy Wilvers (Natalie Ceballos) puts the moves on the oblivious Wade, and Forrest stops short of calling Tracy “hot” around Delia, settling on “fine.” It’s not a complex or clever joke; it’s a comfortable exchange between spouses. And Natalie’s endless amusement over Grace being caught with a boy is exactly what a 12-year-old would be entertained by.
“The Unicorn’s” vibe is more like an indie rom-com than a sitcom. While a drawn-out rom-com doesn’t sound like fun, I’m interested to see where Wade’s journey takes him. This first episode is intelligent enough that I don’t think “The Unicorn” will trip over any cliched ruts.
Following the bizarre tradition of rival shows having the same premise, “Perfect Harmony” is also about a widower, Bradley Whitford’s suicidal, world-hating Arthur. But it’s set in the scripted world of writers’ brains desperately seeking jokes to fill the page more so than the real world. Created by Lesley Wake, this small-town Kentucky choir comedy co-stars “Pitch Perfect’s” Anna Camp. Like Whitford, she deserves better. The actors playing the other singers are no doubt happy to land these “My Name Is Earl” Lite roles, but they probably also deserve better.
I’m typing this immediately after watching the episode, and already most of it has left my head, but an example of “Perfect Harmony’s” humor is that the Indian member of the choir knows Tom Hanks movies by their message rather than their title — so “Philadelphia” becomes “Don’t Get AIDS.” There’s no laugh track, which is good, but also no laughs from me.
By the end of episode one, Arthur isn’t suicidal anymore, and he’s less of a curmudgeon now that he has this choir to direct — these are both good things for “Perfect Harmony” going forward. But since it’s not funny, anyway, I’m not sure why it’s not staged as a light drama – maybe like an adult version of “Glee,” if it could find “Glee’s” least annoying ebb.
“Perfect Harmony’s” hook, of course, is the music, but it lacks the inspiration of even a “Glee” mashup and doesn’t come close to what NBC’s musical-theater drama “Rise” was doing a couple years ago. (“Rise” was no masterpiece, but at least it had a reason to exist.) For the finale, the choir mashes up “Eye of the Tiger” and the church staple “Hallelujah” at a local competition. It’s pleasantly catchy but has no contextual meaning for anyone. Well, I guess “Eye of the Tiger” was Arthur’s and his wife’s song (for some reason), but that’s nothing more than something written in a script.