Three episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
Following a slight uptick in the promising sitcom category with Superstore and Telenovela – not to mention the buzzy Carmichael Show – NBC is back to disappointing us again with the creatively inept new comedy Crowded. It’s multi-camera, there’s a laugh track, grandparents burst in unannounced, and the main duo are lovable scalawags that just want to be left alone, darn it!
There are some aspects of the network’s new show that don’t warrant a double-barrel dose of pointed criticism, but the three episodes made available for review are such a downward spiral of dated gags and inane humor that, by episode three, it presents a pretty convincing case for simply copy-pasting my 2015 review of Truth Be Told, changing a few proper nouns and calling it a day. Patrick Warburton is the new Mark Paul-Gosselaar, marriage problems are the new baby problems and, like most shows in this weird resurgence of early-1990s sitcoms that I can’t and don’t want to comprehend, most everything else is the same.
Created by Suzanne Martin, the thrust of the pilot centers around Mike Moore (Warburton) and Martina Moore (Carrie Preston) crying on the stoop of various universities as they send their two daughters off to college. One is a feisty rebel, Stella (Mia Serafino) and the other is a walking thesaurus, Shea (Miranda Cosgrove), but Mike and Martina get over their empty nest syndrome pretty fast in a whiplash-inducing four year time jump that has the couple finally cleaning up the kids’ playroom and smoking some of Stella’s old pot while reading Dr. Seuss. A “shenanigans” board somewhere in an NBC writer’s room just got a check mark.
Eventually, their daughters are back in their hair, and the show kicks off as a sort-of stab at generational warfare between Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Snake People (it wishes). Stella and Shea’s failure to launch is a decent-enough excuse for a sitcom, but does nothing to explore the post-college job market and the anxieties surrounding it; the show’s more about Mike and Martina dealing with their daughters dealing with rejection, and it feels about as one step (or five) from incisiveness as that sounds.
Crowded‘s first cause for concern is a level of disingenuousness it aims to build an entire series off; in other words, Mike and Martina just aren’t fun people to spend time with. Despicable people are fodder for sitcoms, but Crowded‘s bold lack of nuance doesn’t give them a bastion of endearment to cling onto for every time they berate their in-laws or attempt to kick their daughters out of the house. And while we’re on the topic of falsity, does four people living in one breathily spacious two-story suburban abode even come near the justification of this title?
A lot of the show rides on the gruff, implacable performance of Warburton, who can be great (The Emperor’s New Groove, The Tick) but has the range of newly wet cement in Crowded. He’s Patrick Warburton-ing hardcore here, and his reactionary humor sometimes heightens terrible jokes at the last minute, but he doesn’t do anything notable with the role and there’s no life to him. Mike isn’t only the conservative, vanilla couch potato father figure we’ve seen a hundred times before, but the writers are aggressively okay with pointing out that he’s the exact same conservative, vanilla couch potato father figure we’ve seen a hundred times before. Like everything else in Crowded, that self-referential moment of meta-humor has the grace and subtlety of a chainsaw.
As with these gutter comedies, there’s always one person you feel the worst for. Preston gets that award; she’s just hilariously above this show, but she – or someone behind the scenes – makes the unfortunate call of crafting Martina as the bleeped-out, sitcom version of her least interesting character, Arlene from True Blood (and arguably her best known, probably a good explanation for the decision).
Preston wins the lead character game over Warburton with her manic energy – and for actually appearing to care – but Martina is also not presented with enough interesting depth to get past her sitcom-y problems (she’s a shrink, she works from home, she uses the words “projecting” and “deflecting” far more than any normal human). Her dialogue is not as impressively ham-fisted as poor Cosgrove, whose Shea has to navigate the level of “smart” syntax that would be the equivalent of a 17-year-old googling synonyms for a paper without actually knowing what any of the words mean.
The other Moore daughter suffers most, unfortunately. Serafino’s Stella is illogically constructed, touted as a hyper-modern truth-slinger knowledgable of all things app-based and meme-abused, and uncaring of everything nuanced and deliberate. The show tries to have its cake and eat it too by having Stella drag Shea with a wardrobe reference to MTV’s aggressively cult sitcom Daria but, like most crumbling parts of Crowded, it doesn’t get away with it.
And, remember, they’re the best parts of Crowded. Mike’s dad Bob (Stacey Keach) and step-mom Alice (Carlease Burke) are the dream-like, ephemeral grasps at obnoxious relatives you’d have in a nightmare. They don’t connect to anything, or anyone, only emerging from the dregs of Bob’s bar to attempt at justifying weak tertiary subplots about bible studies and affairs. Like with most of the cast here, they’ve both been good in the past (most recently, Keach elevated the otherwise forgettable If I Stay with one bedside monologue), but they bring none of their likability to Crowded.
A third episode guest spot from Betty White doing and saying exactly what you think Betty White will do and say confirms the show’s laziness. Add on top of all these issues the fact that confusing, choppy editing grates the plot to a halt, and how the writers speed up storylines so fast that goody-two-shoes Shea contemplates tossing her career out the window in one scene for the cute boy at her new internship, and you’ll be as ready to leave the Moore household faster than Mike wishes his daughters would.
There’s just a weird middle-of-the-road feeling to Crowded that immediately dumps it into that less-than mediocre trash bin in your mind (and DVR) reserved for only the most fruitless, pointless of TV series. It combos clichéd plots like marriage problems and familial discord with attempted stabs at topical hot-button issues (Stella is gay for a scene), but does justice to neither and appears disinterested in its own goings-on in the process. It’s a sentiment you’re bound to echo.
Crowded only with stale stories, misappropriated attempts at hip humor, and boring characters, NBC's new sitcom flounders for a reason to exist and comes up with a whole lot of nothing.