We don't usually say it's a good thing when pilots keep certain characters separate from each other and don't allow actors to bounce off each other in scenes, but for CBS' The Millers, it actually works in the show's favor that Jayma Mays talks about and around her on-screen parents more than she does interact with them. Mays is playing a very grounded, single-camera comedy character, while both Beau Bridges and Margo Martindale as said parents are diving into the big, broad, "scream it to the balcony" aspects of traditional sitcoms. Will Arnett, the bridge between the characters and the center of the show, therefore has to carefully toe the line between both styles. His character is the audience's way into the show, and we are looking to him to know what "normal" behavior should look like for the world and tone this show is creating. This makes him more of the straight man than you've ever seen him, and though it's a role he slips into well, it's a little unfortunate and uncomfortable for an audience who knows and loves him as a bigger personality. There is a lot of weight on his shoulders to prove that he isn't as crazy as those who birthed him, just as there is a lot of weight on this show in general to prove it can be more than fart jokes, "older people are bad with technology" jokes, and general loud decibels of line delivery that the pilot relies on for the comedy.
Greg Garcia has created a show that by all intents and purposes has a really interesting and unique premise. Arnett is a man who has recently gotten divorced, inspiring his father (Bridges) to finally admit to his mother (Martindale) that he, too, wants to be separated. It's a classic case of "I learned it from watching you" with a slightly new twist, and it sets up the chain of events for the pilot smoothly and funnily as Arnett is then stuck living with his mom while his sister (Mays) and her family get his dad. Both adult siblings are still more annoyed than amused by their parents, though, which sets up a kind of state of arrested development (no pun intended) for them that should create just specific enough quirks and stories to make this show clever. But the pilot doesn't get there yet. In fact, it doesn't even seem to acknowledge that these adult siblings as well as their parents are all overgrown children; it treats their often whiny and usually even more so yelling demeanor as completely normal and okay. Gone on too long that can be grating, as yelling a joke doesn't make it funnier, it just makes sure you hear exactly was is not subtle about it.
The cast of The Millers is rounded out with supreme powerhouses who can do anything. Literally. They are talented enough to do anything, but they are big enough names where they should be able to land the roles they want the most. They all saw something in The Millers that admittedly I'm just not seeing yet. There are some cute moments in the pilot, mostly revolving on a party that Arnett's friend (JB Smoove) convinces him to have before his mother moves in, only to get its mood-adjusted when she crashes it, and they certainly seem like they're having fun with the roles, but overall it just leaves me with the feeling that they can all do so much better. And that fun is going to run out when they, too, realize that.
The Millers is hammy in the way you expect a sitcom from an early time to be. Thankfully it isn't completely dependent on "punchline, punchline, punchline" though and actually lets moments and characters land and linger. The relationships are the core of the show, and they are extremely well-explained immediately, but they don't all feel like fully-formed actual human beings yet, instead relying more on the "wacky" antics of people who are from another time. It also doesn't help that the most clever part of the pilot (Arnett is a field reporter who happens to be doing a story on parents who publicly shame their children as forms of punishment when they do something bad, in this case cursing, which ends up leading to more cursing on-camera for the local news) is an aside and featuring a kid we'll probably never see again on the show. That's the level of unique detail that has made Garcia's other shows so special and well-received among their fans (even if at times those fans are more niche than a network like CBS would like). That's the level of unique detail this pilot needed to have in droves to prove why it has a voice worth repeat viewing. Instead, right now we only get it in drips, though.
The Millers premieres on CBS on October 3 2013 at 8:30 p.m.
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