Former Saturday Night Live writer John Mulaney’s maiden voyage into the sitcom world took quite a beating even before Sunday night’s premiere. The idea was sound: Mulaney’s stand-up demeanor reminds more than a few observers of Jerry Seinfeld (who had a big TV show once upon a time), and Mulaney himself has often referenced how influenced and inspired he was by The Cosby Show. The comic was also one of the brains behind Bill Hader’s character Stefon, one of the best recurring characters in SNL’s history.
Why wouldn’t NBC assume that Mulaney would be a slam dunk? But then the show actually got made, and suddenly panic set in. The pilot was not to NBC’s liking, and even after some re-tooling, the network passed on it. The first episode was completely re-done, and that version of the kickoff is what aired on Fox, the network that rescued the show from developmental purgatory.
It’s deeply unfortunate that the show has to carry that burden, because like most every TV comedy not named Cheers, Mulaney needs a bit of time to grow into itself. Even by the standards of sitcom pilots, the premiere of Mulaney was rough: The laughs came few and far between, the characters too broad, and the premise—Mulaney plays a comedian who goes to work writing jokes for a game show host played by Martin Short—made too unnecessarily complicated. But its biggest problem is that just about everybody is trying too hard, and if Mulaney simply played it cool, a lot would improve.
Take, for example, the opening bit in the doctor’s office. That scenario is from Mulaney’s act (it appeared on his 2012 stand-up album New In Town), and his telling of it is riotously funny and honest. But when played out in three-camera television form, it completely deflates. There’s a self-consciousness to it that makes it seem remote and foreign, as though Mulaney and the rest of the cast had this material forced upon them. Nasim Pedrad seemed especially labored, as though she was auditioning for a high school production of Bye Bye Birdie. It makes for an unfortunate and uncomfortable launch.
But there’s a lot of potential here. Like Seinfeld before him, Mulaney is not much of an actor, but the more his actual personality can emerge from the show, the better off everyone will be. The rest of the cast—including Pedrad, Elliott Gould as Mulaney’s gay neighbor, and Seaton Smith as a roommate and fellow stand-up—is fantastically talented, which means they should be able to elevate the material once everybody settles into character. Short seems like he could be a problem, as his whole schtick might be too cartoonish even for the hyper-reality of Mulaney, but he does add an energy that the rest of the cast lacks. Gould’s character feels like a series of stereotypes, but his approach is so self-consciously odd that it might transcend the writing.
Or maybe that won’t be necessary, as we already know the writing does improve (something Fox already believes—they’ve already ordered up 10 more episodes). When Fox sent out screeners for Mulaney, the disc included an episode called “Power Moves” that is a real winner. (In a world where setting up the show is unnecessary, “Power Moves” probably should have been the premiere.) It’s based on a totally silly sitcom premise, but it captures the everyday absurdity of Mulaney’s worldview, and the more we get that, the better Mulaney will be.