You know, sometimes it’s nice having you around. But now ain’t one of those times. Now gimme the remote we’re not watching this bullshit.
— ShitMyDadSays, Twitter Feed
There’s something obviously anachronistic about a three-camera sitcom based on a barely year-old Twitter account. Kind of like an iPad that looks like a typewriter. And with the juggernaut Twitter feed ShitMyDadSays as its inspiration, CBS’ anemic new sitcom $#*! My Dad Says is that typewriter.
The series’ odd couple premise — in this case, hipster son Henry Goodson (Jonathan Sadowski) returns home to live with retired curmudgeon dad (William Shatner) — is certainly old. Henry shows up on Ed’s doorstep in San Diego looking to regroup after losing his job at a glossy magazine. Within minutes, the shorthand of their relationship is made clear: Ed shows affection by emasculating Henry, whom he calls “a Girl Scout without the cookies.” And Henry cowers, feeling rejected and misunderstood. (And if you don’t sympathize with him yet, just note the surname.)
Poor Henry. He’s out of work and broke, and his father’s a bit of an asshole. It’s been two years since they’ve seen each other, and Ed greets him with a shotgun (“Gut or nuts? Your choice!”) and offers him only a blood-stained cot to sleep on. If only he had a mother’s love (she’s a disembodied voice on the telephone line, somewhere in Italy), he wouldn’t have to tolerate cranky dad, who routinely chides Henry as he does the neighborhood raccoons who steal his precious, giant cucumbers. After a few harsh words, Ed likes to windmill them across the yard by the tail so that they can “think about what they’ve done.”
Yes, Henry’s the raccoon and Ed’s the oversized cucumber. With very little character development beyond “irascibly grumpy,” his masculinity seems Ed’s sole identifying quality, and his need to assert it and protect it permeates every minute of the series premiere. He goes so far as to deny that he’s singing along to Ella Fitzgerald, though he clearly is, or that he ever could or ever would dance with his son.
Admittedly, this theme is played with a certain amount of irony by Shatner. At one point he breaks loose, giving us a meta-moment in which Henry does the classic Captain Kirk impersonation while Shatner hardly masks his obvious delight. While this adds nothing whatsoever to the series storyline or character development, it’s Shatner at his most Shatneriffic. And while it’s clear he’s having fun up there, it’s a diegetic problem since Ed would never, ever have fun.
That’s not to say Ed’s just randomly cantankerous: he was a Navy doctor in Vietnam, so he’s seen his share of hard times. This background affords him a certain leeway with regard to language, tact, and political correctness. The idea here seems to be that anyone who claims to have “sewed a man’s ball sack back on” during battle has earned the right to insult his own son (and his own son’s ball sack) mercilessly. Still, it’s hard to imagine the impatient and embittered Ed having any semblance of bedside manner and the show offers no clues regarding his non-war zone career.
Does any of that excuse Ed describing Mother Theresa as “a fig wrapped in a napkin”? Or calling the DMV representative a “perfectly nice homosexual”? Of course not, but the series doesn’t ponder these moments either. As they accumulate, Ed becomes less of an eccentric grump and more of a foul-mouthed bigot. We’ve seen this done right 40 years ago in Archie Bunker, but this show lacks the wit, the passion and, yes, the balls to create a truly sympathetic asshole with social relevance.
And so the show plays very true to the source material. Justin Halpern, who started the ShitMyDadSays Twittter account, did so after getting laid off from Maxim and moving in with his father. He quickly found the salty and often blue pearls of wisdom his dad would drop were worthy of sharing with the world. And they were! However, where Halpern (who shares writing credit on the series) may have recognized 140-character gold when he heard it, he should have seen that stretching such a taut lingual economy out to sustain 22 minutes of laugh-tracked television would be impossible — or at least compromise the original spirit of the tweets. What makes Justin’s dad funny is the brevity. Without it, $#*! My Dad Says is not.