ABC's new comedy Back in the Game has a couple of things working against it for this particular reviewer. For one thing, it comes from two writers who previously worked on Work It, the most offensive comedy to come out of television in a long, long time. For another, it's about a woman (Maggie Lawson) who is estranged from her father (James Caan) yet still inexplicably, willingly moves herself and her son (rising star Griffin Gluck) back with him. And finally, there is a strong baseball element to the show as she gets involved in coaching her son's Little League team after he fails to make the major one in the neighborhood but wants to play anyway. While there's nothing necessarily wrong with a sports story, and while second chances and redemption in relationships can actually be a very sweet and positive angle to take, it's just not something I personally want to watch. But on a broader scale, I can't imagine most of you will want to watch it either simply because it's just not funny.
Caan embodies the grumpy old man stereotype who you might be inclined to give the benefit of the doubt simply by saying that his generation didn't show affection. But his gruffness takes another turn when he can't even call his grandson by the proper name. He is definitely old school and insensitive comments come out of his mouth as effortlessly as he breathes, though it is notable that unlike another comedy offering this fall, Back in the Game is self-aware enough to know that Caan's character is not in the right when he is being offensive. Still, it doesn't take long to see what his daughter ran so far away from. But that just makes it more unfathomable that she would subject her son to "all of the pain and anger" that she felt growing up.
It's not just Caan who represents old-fashioned beliefs or stereotypes, though. Ben Koldyke is a Joe McCoy-lite character who is still sexist about sports, even in 2013. He doesn't seem to be as in on the joke as Caan, as he carries his character with such a seriousness, it's a wonder he doesn't snap just from being pulled so tightly.
What Back in the Game does have going for it is that both Lawson and Gluck are incredibly likeable, and her character specifically is certainly well-meaning and actively trying to make the best out of a pretty terrible situation. She clearly cares more about her son than you might expect from someone who was not raised with such an example. She puts his needs ahead of hers-- and ahead of everyone else's around him. When she steps in to coach him in Little League, she's effectively taking on an entire misfit team of kids who weren't good enough for the regular league teams, some of whom are reduced to ridiculous nicknames and caricature-like representations, and most of whom don't even seem to want to play in the first place. To that, I have to note: then why make them play at all!? But again, that might be my own personal bias showing as I work through my own childhood issues.
Lawson and Caan seem a bit mismatched as a father/daughter duo, and inherently that should be where the comedy comes from, but Back in the Game leaves a residue of sadness rather than smiles or laughs. Caan is authoritative, even when he's wrong, but his dial does twist the other way, too. When he is proven wrong, even in small doses, he takes his cuffs on the chin and keeps ticking. He doesn't apologize for who he is, and that makes him a strong character. Lawson is the same way, which explains the butting of heads, as maybe these two are more alike that either of them realize, let alone want to admit.
But while Lawson and Caan keep the story and the relationship grounded, those around them-- Koldyke and Lenora Crichlow especially but also a handful of those periphery kids-- feel like they are in a different show, one that is more tradtionally a sitcom. They hit punchlines hard, rely on big gestures and accents, and make Back in the Game an ensemble of misfits as much as the team within the show is.
Back in the Game premieres on ABC on September 25 2013 at 8:30 p.m. but you can watch the pilot in full right now on http://watchabc.go.com/ and the WATCH ABC app for smart phones and tablets.
Want more Back in the Game news and reviews? Follow LA TV Insider Examiner on Twitter!