If the late English actor Edmund Kean had worked as a 21st Century programming executive, his last words may well have been, “Dying is easy… Developing comedies for young women is hard.”
Oh, it’s easy enough to do comedies for teen and tween female viewers. Disney Channel has been doing it with wild amounts of success for years, launching the careers of starlets like Hilary Duff, Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez.
But what happens when those viewers get a little older? Do they stop wanting to laugh?
That might be a logical supposition if you look at the comedy slates of the two networks that target women 18-34.
The CW has surrendered entirely on comedy. When The WB (which also had comedy issues) merged with UPN, a slew of sitcoms stuck around as part of the latter network’s commitment to African-American viewers. As soon as The CW’s demographic focus shifted, those comedies were pushed out the door. You think The CW might want those 7-ish million viewers who watch “The Game” now on BET? Sure, but that was never going to happen on The CW. It’s been years since The CW last aired a half-hour comedy series.
ABC Family, in contrast, keeps trying and trying and trying to do comedy, without any real success. “Melissa & Joey” does reasonably well allegedly, but calling it “generic” would be almost unsustainable hyperbole. “10 Things I Hate About You” was on-brand and well-received by some critics, but it was cancelled after a season. “State of Georgia” had a solid pedigree with Jennifer Weiner creating and Raven-Symone starring, but it also barely rose to the level of mediocre and was cancelled after a season.
It’s notable that ABC Family can’t do comedy, because the network does drama reasonably well by several standards. It has populist successes like “Secret Life of the American Teenager,” young-skewing social media “buzz” hits like “Pretty Little Liars” and with “Switched at Birth” and “Bunheads,” it even has a few shows that critics say nice things about.
ABC Family’s latest comedic whimper is “Baby Daddy,” which premieres at 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday (June 20) night and will be forgotten by 9:15. And maybe ABC Family views that as progress, because the pilot for “State of Georgia” was bad enough that it took well over 15 minutes to forget.
“Baby Daddy” has no real point of view, no real comedic voice and one very cute infant. Somebody at ABC Family probably, in fact, views that as a net gain.
A few more thoughts, somewhat more specific than “Meh-minus,” after the break…
“Baby Daddy” has a premise that could politely be described as “thin” and could less politely be described as “DON’T THINK ABOUT THIS TOO HARD OR SOMETHING BAD WILL HAPPEN TO YOUR BRAIN.”
Ben (Jean-Luc Bilodeau) is a freewheeling New York City bachelor, who shares a tiny apartment with his ill-defined buddy Tucker (Tahj Mowry). They arrive home one day and… BANG! … There’s a baby on their doormat. That’s established within literally one minute and 20 seconds, so you can’t say that creator Dan Berendsen dilly-dallied to get to business. Conveniently, the arrival of the baby coincides with the arrive of Ben’s brother Danny (Derek Theler), a professional hockey player who doesn’t make enough money not to move in with his brother and his brother’s friend. Oh and this is clearly a great time for Ben to be reintroduced to old pal Riley (Chelsea Kane), who used to be fat, but now looks like Chelsea Kane and still harbors a crush on Ben for absolutely no good reason. [If you’re not a “Dancing with the Stars” or “Jonas LA” fan, incidentally, looking like Chelsea Kane is a good thing.]
Oh, but back to the baby. She was deposited on the doorstep by an ex-girlfriend or an ex-one-night-stand or… something irrelevant. “Baby Daddy” exists in a universe in which this circumstance plays out and the reaction of all involved parties is something along the lines of, “Well, we *should* put this baby up for adoption, but then we wouldn’t have a premise for a show.” All deliberations regarding whether or not Ben and his motley group of friends and relatives — including his mother (Melissa Peterman) — should actually be raising a child are dispatched in a frenzied five minutes of affectless soul-searching. It’s ultimately decided that Ben needs to grow up and therefore forcing this man who shouldn’t be entrusted with turtles with the life of a baby girl makes total sense, not because it’s best for the kid, but because it’s best for Ben and also for wacky hijinks.
The legal situation here is never discussed. I’m not exactly sure what Ben’s parental rights or responsibilities are, but I’m thinking that, at best, they’re “minimal.” And at the very least, Child Protective Services plays some role in vetting the otherwise problematic scenario. ABC Family only made the first and third episodes available to critics and between the first episode and the third, I’m assuming that we dealt with issues of paperwork and custody. Since I won’t be watching that second episode, I assume there was a scene in which a Social Services Worker — a stern African-American actress, I’m assuming — sits down with Ben — probably wearing the baby duct-taped to his head like a stylishly apple-cheeked, pooping chapeau — and a Very Serious Talk ensues.
I’d bet it goes something like this…
Social Services: You understand that every part of this situation, from your apartment to your employment status to your level of emotional maturity, is unacceptable as grounds for custody?
Ben: I don’t follow.
Social Services: Well, best case, you’re using this baby as a glorified prop for some of the lamest jokes about diaper changing imaginable. Worst case scenario, this probably constitutes reckless endangerment on a near-criminal level.
Ben: You make valid points. But I have a dim-witted brother, an ethnically ambiguous roomate and a hot, skinny chick friend who are all equally ill-suited for parenting and they’re all gonna help me raise this child.
Social Services: Hmmm. I can see how that might make things better for the baby. Will there be sexual tension?
Ben: With the baby?!?!? God no! What do you think this is, “Twilight”?
Social Service: I meant with the “hot chick friend.”
Ben: Oh. Sure, even though she used to be fat.
Social Services: That’s disappointing, because the mere presence of your baby strapped to your head makes you irresistible to me and all other women, because your baby has a magnetic pull on our ovaries.
Ben: I know, RIGHT?!?
Social Services: Maybe it’s my woman-hormones talking, but I’m inclined to let this continue. But only for 10 episodes and then we’ll re-evaluate.
Social Services: Weeks! I meant weeks! Because nothing about this is at all sitcom-y and hackneyed!
Ben: Ooops. What’s that smell? Somebody made a boom-boom on my head.
Social Services [bats her eyelashes]: Oh, YOU!
But that’s just my assumption.
“Baby Daddy” is basically “Raising Hope,” minus Greg Garcia’s twisted sense of humor, Greg Garcia’s sometimes hackneyed warmth, Greg Garcia’s detailed sense of place and community and any kind of visual style.
That’s being generous, because it ignores how great the cast of “Raising Hope” has been from the very beginning. Bilodeau and Theler are bland, while Peterman and Mowry haven’t been given enough character traits to seem interesting on any level.
The only member of the cast who makes a positive impression is Kane, whose perky cuteness and Disney-honed ability to hit a punchline hard at least make her look like a professional on a show of gamely trying amateurs. Kane pops so vividly that you would have thought her “Dancing” success could have led to a similarly thankless role on an equally mediocre, but much more watched, network sitcom. Instead she has the disingenuous task of playing the smoking hot girl with the body of a dancer who gets to be the vehicle for one fat joke after another, the kind of fat jokes that nobody on TV would make this relentlessly around an actual overweight person. [Remember when ABC Family had the sensitive, well-acted show “Huge” in which overweight people were treated as humans? I do. Nobody watched it. That’s why ABC Family decided to go this way instead.]
I take that back. The baby is very cute.
The baby is also downgraded from “hero prop” to “glorified doorstop” by the second episode, in which the washing of the hockey player’s disgusting lucky jersey is more central to the A-story than the little bundle of giggles-and-vomit. In fact, while the first episode was all about Ben saying he isn’t ready to raise a baby and everybody deciding raising a baby is the best thing for Ben, the second episode implies that baby-raising has become virtually second nature. I hope that’s setting the stage for a finale in which somebody comes and rescues the baby and Season 2 is just about these really boring people being boring in a very, very fake version of New York City.
Presumably because “10 Things I Hate About You” failed, “Melissa & Joey” and “State of Georgia” and now “Baby Daddy” have all opted for the cheapest looking, most over-lit multi-cam sets imaginable, with the loudest, most appreciative studio audiences available. Characters can’t lean on the walls in these sets, they appear to be so flimsy. Nobody’s making long-term commitments to these sets or this show. The thinking appears to be that if these shows don’t make you laugh, at least they make you comfortable. Indeed, all of the in-studio warm succeeds in convincing you that even if the baby within the show is probably in constant peril, the actress playing her is warm and safe.
I like to say that although ABC Family isn’t including me as part of its core demo, I’m able to appreciate the ABC Family shows I like, whether that means genuinely good shows like “Switched at Birth” or summer guilty pleasures like “The Nine Lives of Chloe King.” I give every ABC Family show a shot, because some stick. Thus far, no ABC Family comedy has come close to sticking with me and I’m done with “Baby Daddy” after two episodes, same as “State of Georgia” and one more episode than I gave “Melissa and Joey.” And no matter how bad these ABC Family comedies are, I’m going to keep writing about them, because I want it to mean something when ABC Family figures out that magic formula.
Keep trying, guys. It can’t be that hard to make me and teenage girls laugh.
“Baby Daddy” premieres on Wednesday, June 20 on ABC Family.