On the surface, The Goodwin Games seems to exemplify an increasingly common small screen trend: Disappointment Television, a.k.a. pedigreed, mega-hyped series that build impossibly high expectations and end up landing more with a whimper than a bang. (See also: Smash, The Newsroom, and, to some extent, Arrested Development’s fourth season.)
Like its brethren, Goodwin was conceived and created by a big-name team – in this case, How I Met Your Mother’s Carter Bays and Craig Thomas. Like the others, it features a cast of talented ringers, including Scott Foley, Beau Bridges, and most of all Becki Newton, who deserves to be about one jillion times more famous than she is. And like both Smash and The Newsroom, it had an auspicious beginning: Fox won the right to air the sitcom after a fierce bidding war, and it was officially picked up to series last May.
Then trouble struck. Fox elected not to air The Goodwin Games in the fall, saving it for midseason instead. In November 2012, the network abandoned that plan altogether, halting production on Goodwin and reducing its initial order from 13 episodes to 7. The comedy finally found its way to screens in May, when Fox began
burning off airing its truncated first season. And though Goodwin hasn’t officially been canceled, its placement on Fox’s schedule and its history – not to mention Scott Foley’s new gig as a series regular on ABC’s Scandal – don’t bode well for its future.
Which is a real shame – because unlike the other pillars of Disappointment Television, The Goodwin Games is actually, well, good.
Or at the very least, it isn’t nearly as polarizing as those shows tend to be. Instead, Goodwin is pleasant and engaging – a solid B sitcom.
You wouldn’t know that from Goodwin’s pilot, though. Episode 1 suffered from an excess of gimmickry that was immediately off-putting, despite the charms of Foley, Newton, and fellow series regular T.J. Miller. All three play estranged siblings who reunite in their small New Hampshire hometown after their father (Bridges) dies. Upon arrival, the second-generation Goodwins learn that their father has somehow amassed a huge fortune – a sum that will go to whichever of them wins an elaborate series of challenges known as the Goodwin Games.
It’s tricky to pull off a high concept like this one, especially in a 22-minute series pilot. Though it’s fast-paced and entertaining, the episode also feels both overstuffed and undercooked – especially when Thomas, Bays, and their fellow co-creator Chris Harris can’t help piling on contrivances like a mysterious fourth Games player (Jerrod Carmichael’s Elijah). I can see why viewers might not give Goodwin another shot after watching its premiere; a show that emulates that pilot each week would quickly start to feel exhausting.
In episode 2, though, The Goodwin Games makes a curious move: It dials way back on its own premise, placing the Games themselves in the background and Foley, Newton, and Miller’s relationships to each other in the foreground.
What began as a quirky puzzle show quickly morphs into a gentle family comedy about regret and redemption – rich subjects that could certainly sustain Goodwin in the long run, if it were to have a long run. The whole “inheritance contest” thing gets less and less essential as the show progresses. It barely even plays a role in season 1’s penultimate episode, which aired last Monday; the half-hour focuses instead on Newton heading back to college and trying to make amends with an old friend (Melissa Tang), while Foley gets a few steps closer to his ex-girlfriend (Kat Foster).
Neither of these storylines, of course, exactly reinvents the sitcom wheel. But as the contrast between Goodwin’s pilot and the rest of its first season proves, that’s not necessarily a bad thing
Innovation for innovation’s sake can seem labored, hollow, and even a little desperate. More well-worn plots can actually be more successful, provided they’re executed well – and the last five episodes of Goodwin have certainly been triumphs of execution, funny even if they’re less than fresh. With time to grow, the show could have been a perfectly charming second-string sitcom – or maybe even something greater, if Thomas, Bays, and Harris had found a way to balance Goodwin’s kookier strains and its conventional heart.
So even if you tuned out after that overly frenetic pilot – or if you never gave the show a chance in the first place – try watching the show’s season (and, in all likelihood, series) finale tonight at 8:30 p.m. ET. It may not blow your mind, but it’s sure to be an agreeable way to spend half an hour – even if you end that half hour mourning Goodwin’s potential. Bonus: The finale was directed by Neil Patrick Harris. Everyone loves Neil Patrick Harris!