Topher Grace, Caitlin McGee and Jimmy Tatro star in ABC’s family sitcom as siblings separated by very different economic circumstances.
ABC’s promising-if-unformed new comedy Home Economics wants to be a timely show about the importance of family in a precarious post-quarantine world, when it’s actually a comedy slightly out of sync with its time.
Home Economics is launching at least a year late, since it could have been hailed as the best comedy in a midseason 2020 pack full of shows about how family is the best cure for economic insecurity. Through three episodes sent to critics, it’s leaps and bounds better than Outmatched, Indebted, Broke and United We Fall, a quartet of half-season series that even TV critics may not remember. All four indicated that Hollywood is aware that class is something that should be discussed more, without exactly understanding how to do it. Home Economics has the same problem.
And maybe Home Economics is two or three years late. In a perfect world, a series like this should at least get the opportunity to grow surrounded by compatible shows; Home Economics would make a terrific match with Single Parents and could be part of an ABC lineup with Fresh Off the Boat and Modern Family and Speechless. Oh well.
Created by Michael Colton and John Aboud, Home Economics focuses on the Hayworth family, with three adult siblings, “one in the 1%, one middle-class and one barely holding on.” The middle-class Hayworth is Tom (Topher Grace), married to Marina (Karla Souza) and living in acceptable chaos with their three children. Tom is a novelist whose last book didn’t sell. Marina is a former attorney. You know things are bad because Tom whines that he’s “almost 40 and clipping supermarket coupons.” I honestly don’t know if the show is aware of how unsympathetic this complaint makes the character. Coupons rule.
The barely-holding-on Hayworth is Sarah (Caitlin McGee). She’s an out-of-work child therapist, her wife Denise (Sasheer Zamata) is a teacher, and though they live in a cramped Bay Area loft with multiple kids, they do live in a Bay Area loft, where they speak alternatingly in New Age and stereotypically “woke” talking points. The show may be aware of how frequently unsympathetic this makes the characters.
Finally, there’s the youngest Hayworth, Connor (Jimmy Tatro). His marriage is falling apart, but he’s rich and so as soon as the year in quarantine ends (a fact acknowledged in the pilot and then never mentioned again), he moves with his daughter Gretchen (Shiloh Bearman) — the show’s only juvenile character to make an individual impression so far — to Matt Damon’s former house with a glorious view of a matte painting of the Golden Gate Bridge. He makes his money in finance, but the writers prefer to treat him as a dim bulb who lucked into wealth — yet another strange choice when it comes to engendering audience sympathy, though Tatro plays it well.
The Hayworths hold regular brunches, the occasional sleepover and attend weddings together, with fighting and then hugs inevitably ensuing.
Early episodes are positively littered with strange choices, misguided illustrations of economic status and questionable markers of family relationships. I guarantee viewers will be bugged in ways they weren’t supposed to be by things like clipping coupons as an indicator that one needs to take a loan from a sibling, or the way almost every word out of Sarah or Denise’s mouth makes them sound like character types rather than people. Other things just trigger my OCD tendencies, like the way the show pretends that Topher Grace and Jimmy Tatro are believable not just as siblings (no problems there), but as siblings separated by only a few years (the actors look 13 years apart because they are). People point to the Modern Family pilot as an exemplary blueprint because 250 episodes worth of character dynamics between at least 10 characters were perfectly laid out in 22 minutes. Nobody will point to Home Economics in the same way.
Yet messiness is much more the rule than the exception in comedy pilots, and the three episodes of Home Economics I’ve seen give the show lots to work with. The characterizations are uneven, especially as the writers try to figure out what’s funny about Grace’s part — a process that includes unsuccessful broad physical comedy in the pilot that gives way to much more endearing awkwardness and truly funny bad karaoke by the third. But the balance between sibling meanness and sibling love is handled well, and the dialogue steers into Grace’s gift with wry, needy sarcasm and Tatro’s talent for making a type of lunkhead lovable (even if it isn’t always clear how that type of lunkhead is making $5 million a year). Zamata, trained at getting value out of limited material in her time on SNL, keeps Denise from just being a loopy cliché and Souza, with a wine glass as a constant prop, earns the highest laugh-to-line ratio in the extended family. The kids appear to be solidly cast, one of the hallmarks of the ABC family comedy brand.
There isn’t much episodic engine to Home Economics. The money stuff in the first episode peaks with a deconstruction of Monopoly that’s Connor’s only moment of actual native intelligence, but it’s not like the series wants there to be stakes regarding whether or not Sarah gets a job or Marina has to go back to being an attorney, much less how they’re going to make rent. Tom is trying to write a book that’s about his family, and it’s insinuated that the siblings won’t like that, but not why they’d really care.
It isn’t like a network sitcom requires propulsive momentum anyway. Home Economics works best when it’s just the family together at a brunch or a party; in those scenes you can see enough appeal for this show to grow in the same way Single Parents did, from an uneven beginning to being one of my favorite broadcast comedies by the time ABC canceled it.
Cast: Topher Grace, Caitlin McGee, Jimmy Tatro, Karla Souza, Sasheer Zamata, Shiloh Bearman, Jordyn Curet, Chloe Jo Rountree and JeCobi Swain
Creators: Michael Colton & John Aboud
Airs Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m. ET/PT on ABC starting April 7.