[9 October 2007]

By Daynah Burnett

Less Filling

ABC’s Carpoolers opened on four men, sitting in a sedan, listening to “All Out of Love” on Soft FM radio. They looked achingly familiar, the sort of homogenized white-collar guys you might find in a car ad, or a car insurance commercial (see: ABC’s other new Tuesday night sitcom, Cavemen). Though their faces remained stoic as Air Supply’s power ballad reached its crescendo, you just knew that one of these guys wouldn’t hold back, and, sure enough, Aubrey (Jerry Minor) caved, and began wailing along with the chorus. I’m afraid this is what Carpoolers calls comedy.

The premiere episode of this sitcom offered no situations beyond the premise: the guys’ daily commute to work. In the car, apparently, men can truly bond: they talk about their problems, they share recipes, they sing along to love songs. You know, all the stuff you might do with your wife if you actually liked her. But no, Carpoolers opted to careen straight into a gender war minefield, with stock male characters looking hapless amid a seeming pack of controlling, lazy, and deceitful women.

Laird (Jerry O’Connell) is a dentist recovering from a messy divorce. Of course, his ex-wife took everything, save his Ab-Lounger (though she wants that too). The group’s designated “player,” Laird likes to share salacious details of his one-night-stands. But during the premiere episode, fellow carpooler Gracen (Fred Goss) offered him a toaster, inspiring Laird to lament his loss of domestic comforts. He held up the toaster, inspecting it on all sides and appearing giddy at the thought of homemade toast. But when Laird showed up later, seated on his Ab-Lounger contentedly eating a slice of toast, the image wasn’t so much funny as pitiable. I mean, even single guys can find the home appliance aisle at Target.

Still, Carpoolers looks hell-bent on sorting out that pesky battle of the sexes business, using the toaster to hammer it home. You see, Gracen’s old toaster had been replaced by a high-tech expensive one, which his real estate agent wife Leila (Faith Ford) assured him was paid for with “her money.” In order to find out just how much money his wife could possibly be making, and to reassure himself that it’s less than what he earns, Gracen accepted Laird’s help in snooping. Laird chimed in, quite enthusiastically, that if he’d been offered help like his, “I might still be married, or divorced a lot sooner!” When it was revealed that Leila does indeed out-earn Gracen, such a power imbalance rendered him emasculated and uninterested in sex with her.

But that’s okay, because carpooling provides him with compensatory camaraderie. And besides, Gracen’s not the only emasculated commuter in the car. The few glimpses of into Aubrey’s (Jerry Minor) home life suggested he’s beholden to his wife: as we saw her feet raised up in a recliner in front of the TV, he scampered about, folding the laundry, making the kids’ lunches, and instructing her, without the slightest tinge of sarcasm, to “Enjoy your shows!” as he scurried off to work. Though Aubrey’s bread-winning and homemaking skills are impressive, his wife’s dominance is reduced to a one-shot joke. Her feet take up the foreground of every shot in his home. We get it: she’s lazy. And?

The lack of innovation is made extra disappointing by the fact that ex-Kid in the Hall Bruce McCulloch takes both Executive Producer and writing credit for Carpoolers. He delivered more effective observations on affable men adrift in Dog Park, without turning women into caricatures. If Carpoolers insists on playing its gender politics as cheaply as a light-beer commercial, it’s going to be a long, quiet ride home.

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