One episode was provided prior to broadcast.
It’s hard to settle on the most important detail of note when it comes to Superior Donuts, yet another network sitcom trying to bring Cheers into the 21st century (sound familiar?) For one thing, it’s Katey Sagal’s return to network comedy after ending 8 Simple Rules over a decade ago. Then again, we’re discussing a CBS sitcom based on a moderately well-received play from 2008 by Tracy Letts of the same name. If that sounds strange to you for a CBS comedy, then you’re properly preparing yourself for this new show’s sometimes uneven, but altogether serviceable pilot.
Like the play, Superior Donuts is structured simply in its premise: a persnickety grouch of a donut shop owner tries to make his small business relevant in an ever-gentrifying Chicago neighborhood. The pilot has a slow start, introducing us to a few by-the-numbers principals in the owner, played by Judd Hirsch in a role practically written for him, his childhood friend (Sagal) who is now a tough-as-nails cop (get it?), and a socially conscious “Diane” who more or less fades into the background, played by Anna Baryshnikov.
A few other comical characters, the bar’s regulars, enter the shop in a steady but predictable rhythm, including an Iraqi business owner that the writers have not found a good capacity for yet, apart from some troubling (and obvious) middle Eastern jokes Jeff Dunham would maybe find hilarious. But the real pull of the show comes from Jermaine Fowler, who is also executive producer. As soon as Fowler enters the shop, the characters and jokes start to snap into place for a stronger introduction to what could be a worthwhile series.
Credit the writers for the smattering of jokes that at least work in theory, with some snappy lines that sometimes leak through the ever-present laugh track. Fowler and Hirsch have a strong dynamic I want to see more of, but aside from David Koechner’s “gig economy” schtick, the other shop regulars are almost completely forgettable. Which is fine for now because Superior Donuts is at least trying to be about something, much like the play, sometimes straddling the line between heavy-handed commentary and a genuine desire to give these characters (and the shop) some reasonable conflict.
That conflict comes in the form of a Starbucks opening across the street, and Arthur (Hirsch) has come to peace with his shop’s sharp decline as a result. As Sagal later puts it, he’s going through the motions at this point, refusing to inject the old-fashioned, 90s-drenched donut shop with new ideas, like espresso drinks and cronuts. Eventually, Fowler comes into play as Franco, a young upstart who sincerely wants to bring the donut shop from his childhood back with a vengeance, and Arthur reluctantly hires him to do just that, starting all kinds of gimmicky small business ideas that are at least more enticing than anything we’d see in Nathan For You.
It would be wrong to say that Superior Donuts is as insightful as it wants to be, offering little nuance to the troubles of the neighborhood and how they effect the patrons of the shop in more than just off-handed references to the fact. If the show can better execute that flourish, this could be an above-average ensemble piece for CBS. But at the very least, Superior Donuts manages to find an easy groove and energy in Fowler and Hirsch’s banter, which you don’t find often enough in these network comedy pilots.
That should come off as decently high praise though, for a sitcom that’s been processed through the CBS network despite being predicated on some frankly highbrow material from Letts. The timing is interesting, too, considering how frequent Chicago has been in the news as of late, and even rebuked by the sitting president for its murder-rates. Whether or not the program is reasonably topical or too much on the side of being mean-spirited will be up to the viewer. To mitigate that, the script pays less attention to the individual backstories of each character and instead opts to quickly move on to the “good stuff,” which is their interactions informed by immediate judgements. It doesn’t always work, but it has the potential to break through its own built-in limitations.
Despite some clumsy execution, Superior Donuts has enough heart to keep your eyes from glazing over.