Hi. I’m your reviewer, and right now, you may be wondering, ‘Why must this review start with one of those tired, uncomfortable fourth-wall breakages that tries to pass off winking self-awareness as wit?’ That’s because this is the grating schematic that the beginning of every episode of Fox’s middling new series Cooper Barrett’s Guide To Surviving Life, which premieres tonight follows at 8:30 p.m. ET, with our ostensibly charming hero (Jack Cutmore-Scott) accosting the audience in medias res and assuring them that this will all make sense soon. This lede is meant to mimic the structure of a Cooper Barrett episode and illustrate how awkward it truly is, and if that baldfaced explanation of how this works isn’t any better, well, guess what the Cooper Barrett writers’ second-worst habit is.
Yet another entry in the time-tested and frequently time-disproven tradition of ‘just a bunch of guys hanging out’-style sitcoms, Cooper Barrett, not unlike its eponymous protagonist, attempts to coast by on charms it does not quite have. In the four episodes Fox provided critics, Cooper and his buddies — big-mouthed Barry (James Earl), sniveling nerd Neil (Charlie Saxton), and Cooper’s older brother Josh (Justin Bartha) — get into garden-variety shenanigans that usually involve controlled substances of one variety or another, land their buttocks in trouble, and wriggle out of it within a tight 22 minutes. At the conclusion of each episode, Cooper turns to the audience to explicitly outline the lessons imparted through their foibles, and yet nobody really learns anything. If it weren’t for the references to The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face” and adult kickball leagues, this could’ve just as easily come out last decade, or the decade before it. It’s a sitcom made by people who have learned nothing from the past 20 years of sitcoms. We were supposed to have evolved beyond this by now.
The pilot episode runs under the title “How To Survive Your Loveable Jackass,” which surprisingly does not refer to Cooper himself, but rather Barry. That’s a bit confusing, seeing as the writers have built Cooper around one of the oldest sitcom fallacies: that a good-looking guy can be as insufferably smug as he wishes and still emerge sympathetic at the end of each episode by showing a tenderer side in the final scenes. In his groaningly played-out flirtation with the literal girl next door Kelly (Meaghan Rath of Being Human and Three Night Stand), our boy Coop semi-ironically describes himself as “complicated,” and does that thing where he informs a potential romantic opposite that he knows what she wants better than she does. The audience’s loathing for this young man runs white hot, of course, and yet we’re expected to hop back on Cooper’s side when he ‘fesses up in the final scenes that he’s anxious about a potential future of apathy and failure. This is quite a bit to expect of viewers, though anyone who has made it to the end of the episode for reasons excepting professional obligation may be willing to subscribe to the doucheballoon-as-immature-avatar theory the creators are sweatily peddling.
Even hoarier clichés form the bedrock for the rest of the show. It’s not just that the will-they/won’t-they tension between Cooper and Kelly fails to compel; as settled adult Josh, Justin Bartha pops in a few times each episode to luxuriate in the postcollegiate slacker lifestyle the boys are cultivating, and to get a respite from what he describes as his “fun-sucking” wife. (When the audience meets her in the next episode, she seems a little high-strung, but mostly lovely and delightful.) Neil’s loserhood is made evident through a brief back-and-forth with a woman at a party in which he leads with the fact that he’s looking for someone to take his virginity. The woman excuses herself, put off, but a hulking female bodybuilder is only too willing to break Neil into the world of adult carnality. It’s a little more surreally disturbing than the run-of-the-mill sitcom groaner, but the core nugget of the joke — big woman like little man, ha ha — can’t sustain an episode’s worth of plot development. A later episode that reveals Neil’s latent 24-style hacking prowess shades the character a touch, but for the most part, his profile’s one note remains flat, quiet, and played by a broken flugelhorn.
TV shows in their earliest infancy need to be allowed a little room to fail, to figure out what works and what doesn’t. But because it never dares to explore any sort of new territory, Cooper Barrett shouldn’t require this leeway. Dozens of nearly identical roomies-hangin’-out programs have come before, some meeting with success and some not so much, and so there’s no excuse for episodes that boast a minute-long Paula Abdul cameo as their high point. (It seems as if an episode along the lines of “How To Survive Having Two Dates With Two Different Girls In One Night” can’t possibly be far behind.) If Cooper Barrett has no interest in finding some new flavor to add to this tired formula, the least it could do is play up the elements of it that work, e.g., the comfortable rapport between likable characters or cleverly farcical setups. But instead, the familiarity intended to lure audiences in takes on a rather sad bent, like visiting your hometown after a year away to find everything frozen in time. The world has grown up, and Cooper Barrett has been left behind.