Sunday, April 23, 2017

Sugar and Spice: CBS's Superior Donuts

Judd Hirsch and Jermaine Fowler in Superior Donuts.

"You know, Fawz, in this crazy and uncertain world, what could be more comforting than a doughnut and a cup of coffee? To be the one to bring that to people … there could be no higher calling than that. " – Arthur, in Superior Donuts
I began watching CBS's new midseason sitcom Superior Donuts the night it premiered back in February, and at the time I never expected to enthusiastically recommend the show to anybody. Adapted from a 2008 stage play by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts (August: Osage County ), for its first two episodes Superior Donuts seemed to be an entirely watchable, and not especially notable, multi-camera sitcom. Set in a struggling doughnut shop in urban Chicago, the show's main selling point seemed to be the welcome return of television veteran Judd Hirsch (Taxi, Numb3rs) to primetime comedy. Now 82 years old, Hirsch's last regular television role was the aged son to the immortal lead character in ABC's Forever (cancelled in 2015 after a single season). Though there are few gaps in the actor's almost six-decade-long career, you'd have to reach back to 1997's George and Leo (where he co-starred with Bob Newhart) to see him helm a network comedy series. Here, Hirsch slips almost too seamlessly into the role of Arthur Przybyszewski, the grumpy and grizzled 75-year-old doughnut shop proprietor. Joining Hirsch are an ensemble of other recognizable faces, including Katey Sagal (Married… with Children, Sons of Anarchy), as Randy DeLuca, a local beat cop and daughter of Arthur's now-deceased best friend; comedian Maz Jobrani as Fawz, an Iraqi-born self-made entrepreneur and real-estate developer; and David Koechner (Another Period), as underemployed shop regular Tush. If you watched only those first two episodes, you saw a sincere, well-delivered but entirely unremarkable example of the soundstage laugh-track sitcom – with the television veterans serving to make you feel like you'd seen this all before.

The first episode introduces us to the central narrative, and core relationship, of the show -- the relationship between Arthur and Franco (comedian Jermaine Fowler), who charms his way in a minimum-wage job at Arthur's shop. The heart of Letts' s original stage play, like that of the series, is the developing relation between the older shop owner, Arthur, a product of the 60s, and the younger African-American Franco, very much the product of the 21st century and inner-city Chicago. The young man brings a new hope-despite-it-all energy that re-energizes everyone, especially Arthur, who – blunted by years, habit, and the recent loss of his wife – begins to newly re-engage with life and the world around him. If none of this sounds revolutionary, that's because it isn't. The series, developed for television by writing team Neil Goldman and Garrett Donovan (Family Guy, Community) and producer/screenwriter Bob Daily (Desperate Housewives and CBS's wholly unnecessary, and recently cancelled, The Odd Couple reboot), is unapologetically conventional in structure – laugh track and all. (Think Cheers, with jelly doughnuts and coffee instead of peanuts and beer. That comparison isn't actually much of a stretch, with Cheers co-creator James Burrows directing eight of the show's thirteen episodes this season. )

But after a bland second episode that had Franco introduce a Sriracha-glazed doughnut, which to Arthur's shock and dismay turns the shop into a temporary hipster hub, emphatic beards and all, the series gets much more interesting. (I'm never seen Letts's play, but whatever its merits or deficits, I am fairly certain it doesn't include lengthy disquisitions on the virtues of facial hair.) Leaning too heavily on one-liners and wisecracks (and a much telegraphed crisis of baker's faith on Arthur's part and the momentary entertainment of Fawz's repeated offer to buy his property), the episode also demonstrated that Fowler is Superior Donuts's secret weapon. Despite being the newcomer of the cast, the young comic's natural sense of timing and charm brings a palpable vitality to Franco, and by way of Franco, to the show as a whole, even when its sitcom scaffolding becomes too visible.

Anna Baryshnikov, David Koechner and Maz Jobrani in Superior Donuts.

The second episode has been the weakest of the season so far – the exception rather than the rule – as Donuts soon found ways to be spicy that have little to do with faddish hot sauce. The third episode tackled gun ownership and racism, the next housing and class warfare (with a dash of Islamophobia), with subsequent episodes touching on access to health care, racial profiling and stop-and-frisk programs, and issues of minimum wage and gentrification. None of these stories can be said to be radical, and most issues resolve themselves neatly by the end of the half hour, but this soft take on the tensions which mark our times is actually more welcome than I would have imagined. With Donuts, the pleasing and familiar sitcom rhythms mesh with a gentle entry in our current realities because at its core it is primarily a story about the power of human relationships, not only the developing one between Franco and Arthur, but also the intersecting relationships with Sagal's Office DeLuca and Jobrani's Fawz.

The show – light as a feather sometimes, despite its topical storylines – could bear a little more weight. With the exception of the two core characters, most of the ensemble remains broadly drawn, with their dialogue often leaning too heavily on type. Koechner's Tush, for example, still seems more punch line than character. (And Koechner's current work on Comedy Central's Another Period demonstrates he is thoroughly up to bigger and better things if given the right script.) Two notable exceptions are Maz Jobrani’s Fawz and Anna Baryshnikov’s Maya. Fawz, an Iraqi-American businessman planned by the Iranian-American Jobrani, simultaneously demonstrates stereotypes and self-awareness of stereotypes. Fawz’s racism – so pronounced that it sometimes shocks the white characters – is uniquely his own, and Jobrani uses the character to brilliantly deliver one-liners about the TSA and life as an American-Arab that are all the more insightful for the fact that they are staged as punchlines. Baryshnikov’s Maya is different, a character who at first glance would seemingly be more at home on a show like 2 Broke Girls. She is the character who has the greatest privilege, the relatively upper-class attractive heterosexual blond white girl with a purely academic understanding of prejudice – but her real-life ignorance of such experiences also makes her the one to demonstrate or point out the misogyny and racism that the show self-consciously incorporates into much lighter "A” story-lines. In one episode, for example, she uses an app on her phone to make a loud noise every time one of the other characters exhibits “unconscious prejudice.” By the time the episode is over, all the other characters, and I suspect most of the audience, want to throw her phone into the doughnut fryer – but in point of fact the episode uses the alarm to point out genuine moments of unconscious prejudice (though Faws does note that sometimes he is being completely conscious about his prejudice). Between Fawz’s illustration of how awkward it can be living in a country that has invaded your homeland twice, and Maya’s demonstration of the gaps between theory and practice concerning issues of race and class, they are stand-out characters; the immigrant and the SJW, but played as far less stereotypical than they appear on the surface.

Donuts would also be improved without the laugh track. The best I can say about that is that the laugh track isn't always distracting, though it certainly doesn't bring anything to the table. While NBC's The Carmichael Show (as I describe in my review of last year) has somehow succeeded in making the off-screen laughter a valuable part of the show, Superior Donuts hasn't done that. The track is entirely unnecessary, since the majority of the characters' one-liners are (to Donuts's credit) spoken for each other's amusement, and not for some unseen, imaginary audience. These growing pains aside, with its traditional structure, character-based humour and demonstrated willingness to step outside of conventional sitcom plotlines, Superior Donuts joins The Carmichael Show in what might be the beginning of a minor renaissance for the great American sitcom art form.

What Arthur reminds us, "What could be more comforting than a doughnut and a cup of coffee?," could be said about Superior Donuts itself – a testament to the value of a simple thing, made with love. Sometimes what you want, and exactly what you need, is a doughnut and a cup of coffee. And there's nothing wrong with that. What makes this show significant, though, is that it also reminds us that even when you are enjoying your doughnut and coffee, issues of the economy, race, and urbanization are an unavoidable part of life.

The first season of Superior Donuts continues on CBS tomorrow night. Its season finale airs Monday, May 8. 

– Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture. Mark has been writing for Critics at Large since 2010. 

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