The Goodwin Games wears its quirk on its sleeve. The opening is straight out of The Royal Tenenbaums: while ornate classical music plays, a bowtie-wearing family patriarch (Beau Bridges) sits in a too-perfectly-art-directed library, gazing at a formal portrait of his three children, while a sans serif caption shifts immediately from announcing his age to declaring his death.
The show only gets more oddball from there. It’s revealed that the man was Benjamin Goodwin, a flawed single father estranged from his adult children (of this, we will be reminded repeatedly). For those children, and with the help of his lawyer April (Melissa Tang), he has devised a series of games and puzzles to decide which of his heirs would inherit his $20-million-plus fortune. The contenders: surgeon Henry (Scott Foley), who feels the most entitled to the fortune, being the most responsible and successful; struggling actress Chloe (Becki Newton), who, sometime around puberty, gave up her mantle as the smart one to become a popular mean girl; and Jimmy (T.J. Miller), the dimwitted petty criminal and single father. Benjamin could have split the inheritance among the three of them, but he wanted to teach the children a lesson or two even after his death.
And so, the games begin. First challenge: complete a game of Trivial Pursuit, with all the questions altered to cover family history. (Dare we call that “adorkable?”) When the trio returns to home to compete for the money, running into former best friends and ex-sweethearts, The Goodwin Games expands its focus beyond the borders of a family-based sitcom. Now it becomes part-homecoming, part-Parenthood, part-It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad Mad World, with elements of David Fincher’s The Game thrown in for good measure.
Thankfully, in the hands of the creators Carter Bays, Craig Thomas, and Chris Harris of How I Met Your Mother, these many pieces form a coherent whole. That whole that isn’t too maudlin (it is a show centered around death, after all), too cute or too manic. Instead of wink-winking at the audience about its own cleverness, The Goodwin Games mostly keeps things moving along at a snappy pace, with jokes as well.
When the show gets too pleased with its own eccentricity, though, it becomes grating. On more than one occasion, information is withheld from viewers just to make someone or some situation look weird. In the pilot, airing 20 May, it’s not explained how Benjamin Goodwin, an “underpaid math professor” as far as his kids were concerned, amassed such a fortune. For the first game, a competitor is brought in from outside the family, and, though people inquire after his identity or connection to Benjamin, the answers remain undisclosed.
At times, the quirk crosses the line from grating to ridiculous. It’s obvious that a sense of fantasy is integral to the show, but the number of times Benjamin gives a fitting and perfectly timed response to the reactions of his children during his posthumous videos—on VHS, to ensure their analog cred—borders on ludicrousness. It also seems as if he has a vast network of people doing his postmortem bidding—delivering notes with essential information, rigging bar photo-booths to show yet another video at the exact right moment—that suggests he’s rigged a series of deus ex machinas. Whenever an extra explanation is needed, or if the plot needs to move forward, another message is delivered right on cue.
Such detours into unbelievability occur throughout the show, but they doesn’t define it. Instead, the chemistry among in the characters helps to sell the series—enough to say that it deserves better than the treatment it’s getting from Fox. The network cut the episode order from 13 to seven, then decided to push the start date and burn off all of the episodes during the summer. As of now, it’s not on the network’s schedule of 2013-2014 programming.
With that in mind, it doesn’t seem likely that the estate will be settled before the show goes off the air. Yet even though the show may never fulfill its central plot purpose, watching the reduced number of episodes may be like one of Benjamin’s challenges: a little silly, likely to conjure up a few heavy sighs, but ultimately an entertaining diversion.