Sons of Tucson is full of familiar ingredients. A dark satire of family dysfunction leavened by the wisecracks of impossibly precocious kids (much like Malcolm in the Middle), it features raunchy comedy, genre parody, and some iffy boneheaded humor (Family Guy). It helps that this unsurprising material is held together by a madcap court jester who is anti-social but nonetheless endearing, the likable Tyler Labine. It also helps that its focus is a “family of choice” rather than a traditional unit. The series sends up social pretensions and sheds light on changing mores. That is, when it isn’t trying too hard to generate laughs.
A variation on Labine’s role in Reaper, Ron Snuffkin is a longtime slacker currently working at a sporting goods superstore. As the series begins, he’s in a bind. He owes $2,000 to petty hood Tony (Jake Busey) and living out of his car. His difficulties set up his acceptance of a deal proposed by three brothers, who hire him to pose as their dad while the real one is in prison (he’s a banker jailed for mortgage fraud). Determined to avoid foster care and child services, the boys flee New Jersey for their dad’s “investment house” in Tucson. Wily in their own ways, the boys realize that since their mother “left a long time ago,” they’re in need of a guardian so they can attend school.
Eleven-year-old Gary (Frank Dolce), the ringleader, comes up with the “fake dad” scam. The boys realize, as eight-year-old Robby (Benjamin Stockham) says, that Ron’s “a creep,” but they also see, after checking out many other possibilities, that he’s essentially harmless. When Gary asks him, “How do you feel about lying for money?” Ron replies, “Keep talking.”
Indeed, the talk on Sons of Tucson is fast and frequently funny, taking aim repeatedly at the nuclear family ideal. Ron uses his new set-up to pull more cons. He wants to get money from his estranged grandmother, so he trots the kids out to prove he’s succeeded in life. When their neighborhood is beset by a series of break-ins (in the episode airing 21 March), Gary makes Ron come with them to a yard sale in order to fit in and avoid suspicion, insisting that he “stop bitching and start acting like a real father.” (The joke is that Ron already complains like a “real” dad might.) Plus his attempts at dad-like behavior are skewed and inappropriate. Nonetheless, he plays the role convincingly enough at the suburban gathering to “pass” as the real thing. At the yard sale, Ron snows his best friend’s wife Angela (Sarayu Rao) into thinking he’s no longer a drug-addled miscreant because he claims he now has custody of “his” kids. Later, he cruelly lets her believe her husband Glenn (Joe Lo Truglio) is cheating when Glenn is actually just out running new scams with Ron. Some of the gender war jokes are mean. Ron’s advice to Angela, distraught that her husband might leave her, is to “jail him with your love.”
The “family” premise is that the boys, especially Gary, make better adults than Ron does. “Playing house” here involves Gary running the household like a mother figure, which he finds so stressful he starts wearing a heart monitor. The boys make Ron live outside in an un-air-conditioned tool shed (because he’s only an “outside dad” like an outside pet, and because they think he’s a “tool” and a loser). But because the series makes the kids, especially the youngest, more sophisticated in their put-downs than they could actually be at their ages, they often appear merely as mouthpieces, and their scenes can be clunky. Thirteen-year-old Brandon (Matthew Levy) can discuss the Twilight books as surprisingly “morally complex,” but soon afterwards, worried that the burglars might have supernatural powers, he wants Ron to reassure him that vampires do not, in fact, exist.
This problem with consistency also affects the jokes concerning the kids, sometimes veering into skeevy areas. When the two older boys debate hiring Ron, Brandon says, “Let’s just put out an ad on Craigslist: ‘Wanted: a father for three boys.’ Bam, we’re done.” Gary replies, “A perfect idea, a footrace between pervs and child services, bam, we’re screwed.” Brandon sighs, “I like my bam better.”
Such acknowledgement of the dangers facing kids—in and outside the home—indicates as well the show’s occasional efforts to redeem not only Ron (who does mean well, after all), but also a traditional idea of family itself. Sometimes this aim is obvious: in the episode airing 28 March, Ron appears before Robby’s class for Career Day, telling obvious lies about his “secret agent’s” life. The kids see through his act, deeming him a “loser dad.” Fighting a hangover (which he says feels like “a small mammal nesting in my head”), Ron must make it up to Robby by proving to his suspicious teacher, Maggie Morales (Natalie Martinez), that they’re a “real family.” He solicits the boys’ help in making a fake photo album, just like he would a fake ID: they ridicule the very idea of such an album as they stage a series of family milestones. Here Ron’s surprising concern is more convincing than the album.
Ron achieves another brief redemption when he teaches Robby to play catch, because Robby’s real father never did (damn you, bankers). During this respite from his usual aggression and lack of self-control, Robby looks to Ron for reassurance. Shifting abruptly from this sentimentalism back to slapstick, the scene ends with Robby beaning Ron in the face with the baseball.
This whiplash tone shift between irony and schmaltz is a strategy Malcolm in the Middle perfected. Sons of Tucson executive producer Justin Berfield (who played Malcolm’s brother Reese and here plays Barry, an older version of Reese) says that Sons is “a unique way to look at the American family,” because “the kids are in control, they run the household and they’re bossing around their dad, so to speak.” At the same time, insists director Todd Holland, who also directed Malcolm, “We’re not schmaltzy. We’re the anti-schmaltz.”
The show manages this mix of effects, reaffirming wholesome family unity while also poking fun at the stereotype, by celebrating Ron and the kids’ ability to lie and scam, their “creative thinking.” If the system is corrupt (the show’s premise), the best way to get over is to work that system, to adapt it to your own needs. The family here serves as both target and refuge, where these pretenders find real hope.