Hit or Sh**: CBS’s SUPERIOR DONUTS
In this Crossfader series, our intricate and complex rating system will tell you definitively whether new television pilots are worth your valuable time. We call it: HIT OR SH**.
Make no mistake, CBS takes cues from the food industry. Nearly every one of their sitcoms comes down the conveyor belt having followed a strict and tired formula. Totally devoid of any spice, the product does nothing to subvert tropes or challenge viewers — and it’s done good for them. The CBS consumer base, given the network’s success, repeatedly watches their reductive perceptions affirmed, as most all characters become living jokes. It’s comedic comfort food that ultimately stunts audience evolution and renders everything a sick bastardization of THE ODD COUPLE. Though it may seem SUPERIOR DONUTS wishes to switch things up with its take on race relations, the most abundant ingredient in this supposedly new recipe is low-hanging fruit.
Full disclosure: I was lucky enough to catch Tracy Letts’s original play, SUPERIOR DONUTS, onstage back in 2010, hyped as his big follow up after AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY. While it wasn’t the best play I’ve ever seen, there was a genuine balance between laughs and social commentary that actually worked. The story takes place in the titular Chicago donut shop, when its crotchety owner, one Arthur Przbyszewski, reluctantly hires the charismatic Franco Wicks. Times are tough for Arthur, but Franco, in an effort to stay off the streets and legitimize himself with a real job, vows to attract customers as an indispensably creative employee. Despite all the crap Arthur gives Franco, every time they inevitably lock horns, be it the very Chicagoan Polish/Black racial divide or creative differences given Arthur’s traditionalist approach, he sees a spark in Franco. Of course they find common ground, learn about each other, and eventually one comes for the other’s rescue. CBS takes this easily expandable (read: exploitable) premise and shapes what could be an insightful comedy into everything their TV lineup has ever been.
“Back in my day we’d say ‘I bite my thumb at you, sir!’”
You’d be surprised how unnecessarily goofy a show supposedly easing racial tensions can get. Each cringe-inducing zinger that is incessantly one-upped hurts. Gags are stretched incredibly thin and revolve mostly around the most naive perceptions of modern America. Franco translates some selfie-era vernacular. Arthur curses millennials and their Starbucks. They’re all variations of the same tired and obvious joke. Like all CBS sitcoms, it writes itself. Where the play had dark, pointed wit and a great sense of place as a solemn love letter to Chi-Town from Letts, the show sucks out its soul by going straight for the juvenile. How badly do we need Judd Hirsch to say, “dope-ass”? Seriously.
But props to TAXI legend Judd Hirsch for still giving his all as another lead, and to rising comedian Jermaine Fowler for keeping Franco’s energy. At the bare bones level, their chemistry works. Katey Sagal doesn’t seem to care about her role as Arthur’s best friend’s daughter Officer Randy DeLuca, but can you blame her? David Koechner knows he’s done this a million times already and comes off forced as odd job seeker Carl “Tush” Tushinski. Anna Baryshnikov’s Maya is a white guilt-ridden social justice warrior, but written with such little bite that she becomes merely a caricature and painfully easy joke target. Iranian-American comedian Maz Jobrani deserves a raise for doing his best with Iraqi real estate developer Fawz. His pitch seems genuine as a former-refugee-turned-success, always asking Arthur to sell the donut shop to him. But he quickly proves to be just another goofy joke machine. Compare this to his humbler stage counterpart, Russian electronics salesman Max Tarasov, by no means a success, who desperately competes in the growing tech market and offers a high price for the store to widen both their horizons. Is it easier for lay audiences to laugh when they’re more detached, or does Iraq seem like a more timely enemy than Russia nowadays? Tell us, CBS!
After Franco told Arthur what “nut” now means he never used cream again
The network is confident in making everyone strictly adhere to an ancient sitcom framework that cannot do SUPERIOR DONUTS justice. Heavy topics are milked for buzzword-heavy one-liners, but no stance is ever taken. Sure, give the show some time to get its footing and really explore what interesting things can be done with its setup. Just try not to groan when Koechner says, “It’s lit” for the umpteenth time.
SUPERIOR DONUTS airs on CBS on Mondays