TV

NBC’s ‘I Feel Bad’ Shows Promise But Stumbles In The Execution


NBC

The central idea of NBC’s I Feel Bad is that women “feel bad about something almost every day.” As Emet (Sarayu Blue) narrates, “I never know what I’ll feel bad about but I know it’s always just around the corner.” It’s an immediately relatable statement brimming with comedic possibilities, and creator Aseem Batra (along with Executive Producer Amy Poehler) dive right in, hoping to find the humor within the daily insecurities that plague women. Unfortunately, the sitcom (based on a book by Orli Auslander) often fumbles the landing. The show isn’t, well, bad — there are many moments of promise within the first three episodes — but it sometimes falls short with its characters and tends to amplify the worst aspects over the better ones.

At first glance, I Feel Bad is typical sitcom fare: a married mother trying to find a balance between her work and personal life while struggling to get everything right. Her husband is fine, but needs more coddling than Emet has time to give; her children are adorable but their many demands cut into her downtime; her frequently-visiting parents are loving but frustrating, chock-full of passive-aggression. Throughout, Emet flails, schemes, succeeds, fails — all, of course, in comic fashion. On the surface, I Feel Bad is forgettable but it’s clear there’s something special underneath its standard offerings.

Much of the greatness of the show is propelled by Blue’s charming performance: she’s skilled at finding the proper rhythms (even when the show struggles), commits to the physical comedy, and can deliver her voiceover with the right mix of levity and pathos. The show also has a notable willingness to engage with the material — a sitcom mother who knows she’ll never be perfect, and who also has many lives outside of her children — with wit and honesty. The focus on a mixed-race family (Emet is Indian-American while her husband David (Paul Adelstein) is white) is refreshing, as are many of the subplots involving her parents. In fact, her mother (Madhur Jaffrey) and father (Brian George) get many of the best and most straight-forward funny lines — George’s delivery in particular is a standout.

The problem is that these good parts are overshadowed by the more negative aspects and the show’s early inability to figure out its characters. It’s easy to root for (and feel sorry for!) Emet when we see her frazzled during a busy morning, and horrified by her father who just “smacked my ass because he thought I was my mom.” The fear of becoming her mother — not just from behind, but through her own parenting — runs through the episode as a nice introduction to the family dynamics. But then at work, where she’s the head artist at a male-dominated video game company, it’s more weird than funny when she asks her three obnoxious coworkers (James Buckley, Johnny Pemberton, Zach Cherry) if she’s “still doable” and then wonders when nerds have gotten “so damn picky.”

In the pilot, her daughter Lily (Lily Rose Silver) proudly shows off her dance routine, much to Emet’s horror. Hinging a plot on Emet’s struggle to find the middle ground between supporting Lily’s passion vs. the parental urge to shut down an inappropriate dance routine is a smart move. Emet telling Lily that her outfit is similar to clothing “that makes juries extremely unsympathetic to victims” is questionable at best. But it’s a good example of the strange tonal whiplash that occurs in I Feel Bad, as if its unsure if it wants to be a sweet family sitcom or an edgy comedy with bite. There are ways to do both — Black-ish first comes to mind — but it needs to confidently establish that tone. Right now, it’s only distracting.

Emet’s coworkers don’t help matters, falling into broad stereotypes of video game nerds who balk at “unbangable” female characters or hit on women in bizarre, creepy ways. The second episode features a solid storyline about Emet’s attempts to find her own personal space away from her overbearing family, ruminating on how it’s nearly impossible for women to find time for themselves — and especially impossible to not feel guilty about wanting that time, because of the notion that women must be 24/7 caretakers. Unfortunately, the plot is kicked into gear by her coworkers encouraging her to “manspread” and take on male qualities, in conversations that are more boring than clever. Though I know the series wants to take on the work/life balance, I still wish it cut the office scenes all together because I Feel Bad‘s biggest strengths are found within the family.

More than anything, I felt frustrated watching I Feel Bad because I want it to be much better — and because I know it could be much better, based on the smaller moments that do shine. It’s definitely the sort of comedy that could become great with some retooling and stronger character development — if it doesn’t quietly disappear off the air first.

‘I Feel Bad’ premieres on NBC Wednesday, September 19

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