CBS’s latest sitcom SUPERIOR DONUTS premiered tonight, with an uneven episode that nevertheless shows potential. In some ways, it’s classic CBS—it’s a multi-cam sitcom filmed before a live audience with stale observations (it’s going too far to call them jokes) about millennials. In other ways, it represents something new for the network. Based on a play by Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning writer Tracy Letts, it features the only black lead on a CBS sitcom, comedian Jermaine Fowler. That’s reason enough to root for the show, although the pilot suffers from a repetitive story—Franco (Fowler) is hired by grumpy old donut shop owner Arthur (Judd Hirsch), only to be fired, then rehired again.
The premise of the show is that Franco, a millennial artist looking for a job, offers to help Arthur drum up business for his donut shop. Arthur’s old-fashioned commitment to tradition isn’t helping him gain customers in the rapidly gentrifying Chicago neighborhood, and Iraqi neighbor Fawz (Maz Jobrani) is all too happy to buy the store and turn it into high-rent apartments. Arthur’s only customers seem to be Randy (Katey Sagal), a world-weary cop, Tush (David Koechner), who treats the shop like his office, and rich white grad student Maya (Anna Baryshnikov, so great in Manchester by the Sea, seemingly only this show to be the butt of Arthur’s jokes about millennials).
Jermaine Fowler is a very funny comedian, but at least in this pilot, he hasn’t learned how to transfer his skills to the broader comedy and expected beats of a multi-cam sitcom. He speaks too fast, rushing through jokes without letting the punchlines land, and mugs for the camera. It’s only the pilot, so it’s possible that he’ll adjust to the medium, but his lack of experience in the format, which requires a specific sort of comedian, is obvious when compared to vets like Sagal and Hirsch. David Koechner, who typically appears in raunchier fare, adapts better, even though he’s not given the best material to work with. He’s a man who lost his job at a factory, now makes a living working in the “gig economy”, fielding job offers on an old fax machine. That’s really all there is to the character at this point.
Like CBS’S The Great Indoors, the writing relies on characters referencing aspects of millennial culture instead of actually writing jokes. Simply saying “cronut” should not be a punchline. However, the dynamic between Franco and Arthur could prove to be a reliable framework for comedy. We’ve seen relationships like this before—the older generation clashing with the younger one—but they have clear comedic chemistry. What’s less clear is why Franco is so obsessed with working at the donut shop. He has lots of ideas of how to bring in more customers—mainly by upping the shop’s social media presence and hiring his friend Sweatpants (Rell Battle) to dress up in a donut costume—but why does he care so much?
In this episode, Arthur hires Franco to help bring in customers, then fires him when his methods don’t provide immediate results, then hires him again after he learns that Franco, a street artist, vandalized the Starbucks across the street, Superior Donut’s newest competitor. He even uses his emergency fund to bribe the Starbucks manager into not pressing charges. Franco and Arthur are now working together again. It’s not the strongest start to a season, but it shows potential. There could be a funny and illuminating show about generational differences and the culture clashes that come from a changing Chicago neighborhood—although of course the sets on CBS’s soundstages don’t exactly look or feel like Chicago. Superior Donuts will return on Monday at 9pm, in its usual timeslot, and I’m interested to see where it goes.
Season 1, Episode 1 (S01E01)
Superior Donuts airs Monday at 9PM on CBS
Jennifer Trofa | Contributor