How can a show survive when at its core it doesn’t understand who its characters are? What their lives are actually like?
Out of all the unbelievable things that ABC’s new sitcom Single Parents asks us to believe, the most outlandish is that there are five – count ‘em, five – single parents parenting children in this bougie Californian kindergarten classroom.
There’s Leighton Meester as Angie D’Amato, either a downtrodden or exhausted single mother, it’s hard to tell from her depiction. Taran Killam as clueless sad sack Will Cooper, aka the guy you’ve seen in all the promos unzipping his pants at the knees to turn them into cargo shorts. Brad Garrett as Douglas Fogert, a dermatologist that runs around like he’s Tony Soprano’s cousin, slipping folded up bills to anyone who even slightly gets in his way, including both the kindergarten teacher and a random student, uh ok. Kimrie Lewis as Poppy Banks, and honestly, we don’t know much about her except she has a very stereotypically gay son who’s brought in for all sorts of stereotypical gay gags like critiquing Will’s clothes and dancing. And finally, Jake Choi as Miggy Park, who’s baby isn’t actually even in the kindergarten class because well, it’s a baby, though both attend the first day of school since the single parent crew lets them tag along, because, I guess, “it takes a village.”
This brings me to the second most unbelievable thing about Single Parents: no parents of kindergarteners would let this dude with a baby follow them around all the time. WE’RE POTTY TRAINED UP IN HERE, BRAH, MOVE ALONG.
As a single parent, you want to like a show about single parents. Representation is good and important and single parents as a group may just be the half hour comedy’s last untapped resource. Yet, sadly it appears that these writers may have never actually met or spoken to any single parents before embarking on the making of this show because everything in this pilot felt stale, cliched, and totally unbelievable. I can’t get over it – a fancy Californian kindergarten classroom has never in the history of the world seen this many single parents. Five! Didn’t the writers watch Big Little Lies? One single mom showed up and it practically blew up the entire fucking town.
Half hour comedies live and die by their premises. Baked into the premise must be a real, legitimate reason for these characters to spend time together over and over and over again. In a workplace comedy like Veep, all these crazy kooks are together because they work for Selina Meyer and she is insufferable—chaos ensues. I love it, I can get behind it because I believe it. The Office, The IT Crowd, Murphy Brown, Silicon Valley, The Good Place, etc., all of these shows give you believable reasons for these characters to show up in this world every day, over and over again, and say something stupid.
Another solid premise is the “we all live in the same place” set up. Vintage Roseanne, Will and Grace, Friends, The Big Bang Theory, Modern Family, Everybody Loves Raymond, New Girl, etc. If we all live in the same apartment building or you’re my mom (or both), you’re gonna be bothering me when I get home from work and fine, chaos ensues.
So aside from the stale jokes, the fatal flaw for Single Parents as I see it is that a kindergarten classroom is essentially a transitional place for a parent – you’re dropping your kid off and trying to get the hell out of there because, guess what, single parents have a lot of shit to do. And no single parent has enough time to be getting up to a bunch of shenanigans with her single parent buddies week after week.
In the pilot episode, we’re supposed to believe that the single parents band together to show Will the error of his ways – he’s in too deep on this parenting thing, man! – and procure him a date, send him on the date, and then rescue him from said date. (The B story is that Leighton Meester’s kid has a crush and she’s frantically worried that he’s going to get his heart broken, and it’s all a little heavy-handed on the “single parents are scared of love” bit, if you ask me.)
Honestly, the most hilarious thing about Single Parents is the characters’ expansive amount of free time and interest in Will’s life. I could give a shit if Will cut his daughter’s turkey sandwich into a snowflake or never gets laid again, I’ve got to commute an hour to work, take a phone call from the principal about my kid hiding under a desk during math, call Comcast again, pay bills, agonize over meal planning and not getting enough exercise and my newly acquired plantar fasciitis, rush to purchase spinach for the classroom turtle (not romaine, he does not prefer romaine), pick up the child and drop off the spinach, feed child, bathe child, read to child, put child to bed, COLLAPSE, oh shit, back up, forgot about the laundry. Good luck with your dating life and mermaid duffle bag, Will, I literally could not care less.
How can a show survive when at its core it doesn’t understand who its characters are? What their lives are actually like? Sure, it’s a half hour comedy and not a documentary, and honestly if I have to watch one more harried mom walk around my television set with yogurt on her shirt as a representation of motherhood, Imma scream, but still Single Parents seems to have written a check it can’t cash. Sure, these people might be school acquaintances, or even friends, but what about their interactions will illuminate anything true about the heavy lifting of parenting solo?
The show’s attempt at an emotional This Is Us level declaration of a “life truth” was embarrassing. After Will has utterly fucked up his first date by telling her “I love you” as soon as she kisses him (the lazy writing and character development here is really killing me), and the cops have been called (of course), not one, but all four of the other single parents show up to rescue him and Leighton Meester proclaims, “We all got left. But we’re not alone.” BARF.
It’s this sort of fetishization of the single parent as someone without agency, someone who was left, left to toil and struggle alone, to be taken pity on that really gets under my skin. I left my ex husband because he was an asshole. And I gotta tell you, nine years later, I continue to be thrilled by that decision and very infrequently feel alone.
The most interesting character in Single Parents is Brad Garret’s Doug, an aging dermatologist with twin daughters. I could do without the hack gangster-y nonsense but the writers would be wise to ditch everyone else and focus their efforts here. See Douglas got himself a trophy wife (not sure why she needed to be a stripper, I mean they’re in L.A., aren’t there a lot of failed actresses everywhere? The stripper detail seems overly misogynistic, but I’m just a woman, what do I know) and she wanted to have a baby, so of course they have twins, and then she dies and he’s left dealing with these two girls. Now here’s a prime set up for struggle and character growth and fuck-ups and learning — it’s like Three Men and a Baby meets Gangster Frasier, and I’m totally into it because this guy’s got an actual story that can be rooted in his circumstance as a single parent. He’s got his old life where he did what he wanted and was a privileged asshole, and now he’s got a new life where these kids need him but, fuck, he’d rather be doing something else. There’s an entire show right there. But it seems I’m the only one actually paying attention to these characters and interested in finding both the humor and pathos in their circumstances and in the unexpected ways life turns out.
Is it too much to ask our sitcoms for realistic depictions of human struggles? Maybe. But the best shows deliver both humor and truth, and that, my friends, is what I want to watch.
Adrienne Gunn is a writer, editor, and storyteller and has published in McSweeney’s, PANK, TriQuarterly, Five Quarterly, among other journals, and has a one-woman show called Mother of the Year!
A version of this originally appeared on HEAUXS. Republished here with permission.