There's a nihilism to Fox's Dads — the most critically reviled show of the brand-new network TV season — that fits in comfortably with the racist and sexist spurts that sporadically shoot from the mouths of almost-lunatic, but also mainstream, right-wing figures like Donald Trump, Rush Limbaugh, and Ann Coulter. Each of that trio has found his or her brand in shock and outrage: And sometimes they say something so awful that they get a sad, exhausted spotlight shone on them for five minutes. The light then reveals something striving and needy in them, and terrible about humanity. They are also successful people who've made money from being the worst versions of themselves they can be.
Which brings us to Dads.
This half-hour show is about two best friends (Seth Green and Giovanni Ribisi) who run a big video game company. When the pilot begins, Ribisi's character, the uptight and Waspy Warner, is already saddled with his father, played by Martin Mull, who lives with Warner and his wife (Vanessa Lachey) and their two children. Green's Eli — a dog with the ladies — is soon visited by his own dad, played by Peter Riegert, who sticks around permanently as well. Brenda Song is Veronica, who works at Warner and Eli's company.
Dads premieres on Fox on Tuesday at 8 p.m., and is under the auspices of executive producer Seth MacFarlane. But he is not a writer on the show; Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild (of MacFarlane's Family Guy and Ted) are Dads' creators.
Every character is a terrible person in his or her own way. Through the two episodes Fox has made available, there's not much plot to Dads — the stakes are low here — so mostly people just pick at each other. They laze around with dead eyes, Ribisi especially, unfortunately. The sets look cheap; the lighting doesn't do anyone any favors. If life were this ugly both inside and out, I'm pretty sure we'd all give up. Obviously, we're supposed to laugh at these thirtysomething men having to deal with their dads. I haven't yet.
There's an ongoing debate in pop culture about comedy and saying forbidden things. Whether it's Daniel Tosh and rape jokes or Sarah Silverman and rape jokes or Louis C.K. and, sigh, rape jokes, the question of who is "allowed" to say what, and whether misogyny or racism or homophobia can be tools of comedy, is a constant, interesting discussion where smart people can disagree. With its racist heart and misogynist spine, Dads, despite being wan and even boring, is screaming for that kind of attention.
So here we are. After a summer of debating whether to ignore Dads, I've taken the bait — the sort of bait in which desperation tries to disguise itself as edginess — because I just cannot believe anyone thinks this is OK. Oh, and I'll be revealing a bunch of Dads' jokes below. But they can't be spoilers if they're already rotten, right?
Fox is using the antipathy toward Dads to market the show, so go ahead and hate it.
Here's a "critics vs. fans" promo for Dads that quotes journalists' negative comments, and then contrasts them with "fans'" reactions. Tweets of mine are quoted twice (a Fox PR person asked my permission to use it; of course I said yes). One of the things I wrote was that it is "reprehensible." So what's the fan reaction? "Reprehensible?!?" says some incredulous guy, "This is Fox, baby!"
Hearing him say that, it did occur to me that Fox has really strayed from that Married ... With Children brand it used to have — what is Fox now? American Idol? New Girl? The Following? No idea.
(I should say that I reached out to Fox and Twentieth Century Fox Television to ask if any of the creators or executives would talk to me about what it's been like to be behind the most hated show of the new season. That request was not granted.)
There are many awful things about Dads. But its racism is the worst. So let's get specific.
What Brenda Song goes through on this show — it's serious and hard to watch. And begins immediately. Veronica enters the action as Eli and Warner are complaining about their fathers (again, there's not much going on here). "Well, you're lucky your dads are American," Veronica says. "My dad beat me with a math book till I was 16." Oh, those crazy Chinese-Americans with their math and their child abuse. (In the original script for the pilot, Eli responds, "Yes, but we're white, so we can whine about things that you can't.") As the scene goes on, Eli and Warner conscript Veronica, to "help" with their "pitch to the Chinese investors." Veronica: "Because of my intimate knowledge of Chinese culture?" Warner: "No, because you're going to dress up like a sexy Asian schoolgirl."
And so she does.
The Veronica character is the constant subject of racism and sexism in the pilot; she also self-deals it. She's prompted by Eli during the meeting with the Chinese investors to titter with her hands over her mouth, and does.
The investors' translator then snaps a photo of her. At the Television Critics Association Press Tour over the summer, the Dads panel did not go particularly well for the panelists (and was cut short by Fox) because no one thinks it's good. But the show's executive producers — Wild, Sulkin, and Mike Scully — were adept in answering criticism by saying that they knew the pilot wasn't funny enough. Which sidestepped journalists who were actually asking about racism and misogyny. Here's an example. Sulkin, when asked about the schoolgirl outfit, said: "We didn't think that was a socially provocative moment or we were answering some societal question by putting her in a sexy outfit. We thought it would kind of lead to a funny scene. And if that didn't land with you guys or with a lot of people, we understand that and we're trying to learn the things that land and don't and, you know, learn from that and change them in upcoming shows."
Saying we understand is pretty effective. It distracts you for just the right amount of time from being stupefied that an intelligent writer at the top of his profession who lives in one of the most diverse cities in America is claiming he didn't know that putting a young Asian woman in a schoolgirl outfit and having her employers ask her to giggle like a child in order to titillate clients is, to use his flattened words, "socially provocative."
When you snap out of it, though, you may be left wondering which is worse: deliberately being grotesque and irresponsible with racial and sexual stereotypes, or doing it accidentally.
The 25-year-old Song, a big star in the Disney universe from her Suite Life days, may be trying to get away from that past in the same way that Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens did with more fanfare in Spring Breakers. Song was mostly quiet on the TCA panel, but did deliver one long-ish answer about why she loves being on the show. "Everybody who's seen the pilot, even the commercials, was like, 'How are you not offended by wearing that little schoolgirl outfit?'" she said. "For me, it doesn't even come from that. I'm looking at it as Veronica. She is a go-getter. She's really dry. She loves her job, and she'll do whatever it takes to get the job done. It's not about humoring these guys and putting on an outfit. She's going, 'This is what I need to do to get in this room and get this job done.'"
There's no way not to sound patronizing here, so I'll just write this next bit knowing that: The idea of Song having to deal with "everybody" in her life who's seen Dads asking her about the schoolgirl outfit made me immeasurably sad.
Here's how Veronica does "whatever it takes."
Veronica does, in fact, land the Chinese investors for Eli and Warner. How? The translator who had snapped a picture of her later sexts her a picture of his penis — specifically of his "tiny penis," which was changed from the version sent out in the spring in which she called it his "tiny China penis." She blackmails him, and the deal gets done. Warner and Eli congratulate her, and then they all stand around looking at the picture. David, the Peter Riegert character, says, "It looks like something you'd pick out of a salad." Warner adds, "It looks like a cashew in a shag carpet." Martin Mull's Crawford says, "I see an inchworm in a little tiny fireman's hat."
That's the end of the pilot. It could have been worse: In the original script, Veronica had sex with the translator. "Let's just say I wrecked him in the bedroom like a panda wrecks bamboo if a panda was having crazy sex with bamboo," she reports to her bosses at their place of work. Eli says: "Nice! Gross. But nice."
Veronica: "No big deal. It was China penis, so it was like wrecking a furious baby's toe."
(Obviously, someone thought better of that sequence, not to mention Veronica turning out to be, well, a prostitute. Whether it was Fox executives or the writers, I didn't get to find out.)
It's all just such a bummer.
To see Mull and Riegert — talented comic actors — in Dads is upsetting, of course, but actors like to act, everybody's gotta eat, etc. They're playing grotesqueries, though, and man, it's depressing. Riegert has to act out being personally disgusting, making throat noises that repulse Eli, but Mull gets it worse. His character is crazed and, if I thought Dads reflected on these things, perhaps showing signs of dementia (he thinks he works with Warner, and he has no impulse control). In the screen grab above, he's shown up at Warner's meeting, and is saying, "The Chinese are a lovely and honorable people. But you can't trust them." And then: "There's a reason Shanghai's a verb!" Later, when approaching Warner at home, who is sitting on the couch playing a video game, he says: "Whatcha playin'? Punch the Puerto Rican?"
Have you noticed that none of these jokes are funny? It's not just the racist jokes that don't, to use Sulkin's parlance, land. "Yes, feel it," Warner says to Eli when he's found out David is coming. "Feel the dad." Or here's David at home with Eli: "Stay out of the bathroom between 3 and 4. That's my go time."
It's worth asking whether there is a world in which Dads — even with its evil spirit — could be funny if it were actually... funny. South Park crosses lines all the time, and I love it; MacFarlane's Family Guy is not for me, but I've laughed at some things Stewie has said. Regrettably for Dads, it falls into a bin of recent network sitcoms that includes CBS's short-lived Rob and ABC's Work It — just objectively terrible comedies that are also offensive. It's worth noting that CBS's 2 Broke Girls has been criticized for its racism and rape jokes. And that show is definitely a hit. If I had to guess why, I would say that because Kat Dennings is just so good that she lifts 2 Broke Girls up, and the writers certainly give her sharp things to say (and have since the pilot).
Dads does not have a Kat Dennings, if I haven't been clear about that.
At TCA, Fox's entertainment chairman, Kevin Reilly, asked for patience for Dads, because comedies take a while to come together. "If this show is still low-hanging-fruit jokes that seem in bad taste and haven't been earned with intelligence, and the characters have not become full-blown over the course of the next summer months — number one, the show's not going to work. And number two, you should take it to task."
He was as forthright as he could be without insulting the creators about the pilot being bad. But since he wasn't explicitly asked, he didn't answer why it's a good business decision for Fox to put millions of dollars into a show filled with dialogue that would probably get an employee fired from Fox.
And why no one along the way of the extensive pilot process said out loud: Wait, this show has no wit, and is terrible for the world. There are so many funny things in the universe — what if we didn't do this?
Having gotten feedback on the pilot, the creators of the show seem to be retreating, and that anti-Semitic joke excerpted above (the voices belong to Mull, Ribisi, and Green, in that order) is one of its two tap dances into racial/ethnic humor (the other is a song with the lyrics "Noble Eskimo / We stole your snow"). As you can hear, it's not even close to funny — penguin meat? — and the loud laughter and clapping of the studio audience after Mull says "it's free!" is... well, I am frightened of the laugher.
But it is just one short joke. Without its long riffs of racist nonsense, Dads has to rely even more heavily on the dads being annoying (the sons trick them into getting high for reasons too absurd to get into). Oh, and a significant percentage of that second episode is devoted to Warner's relationship with his wife: Can you guess what it is? She's a bitch! He's whipped! Very familiar, hacky sitcom stuff here. A safer Dads is, it turns out, a tedious Dads.
As of next week, Dads will be up against NCIS on CBS, the most-watched show on television, and ABC's huge bet for the season, Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. The continued success of NCIS is a given; S.H.I.E.L.D., the Avengers TV spin-off from Joss Whedon, is much more of a question mark, and I'm not sure how it will do in the long run.
But if I could task the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to do one thing, it would be this: Destroy Dads.