J.K. Simmons can be a warm paternal presence, a comedic force, a terrifying human monster, or a wry closing-pitcher fifth wheel to the nominal protagonists. (See, respectively: the dad in Juno, J. Jonah Jameson in the Spider-Man trilogy, Schillinger on Oz, his recurring role as a psychiatrist in the Law & Orderverse.) To the extent that NBC’s new comedy Growing Up Fisher works at all, it works because of Simmons. The show is based on the actual life story of creator DJ Nash, and it’s narrated by an older version of his onscreen surrogate Henry (Eli Baker) — although it’s set in the modern day in a hyper-specific geographic location known as Sitcomlandia.
The premiere sets up two concepty pitches for the show — dad is blind, the parents are getting a divorce — and strives hard to establish that Henry is on a Wonder Years-esque Coming of Age Journey, complete with Jason Bateman in the Daniel Stern narration role. (“Sometimes the tough moments in life make way for greater things you can imagine” is something that Bateman actually has to narrate.) But the focus is always on Simmons: It’s like The Wonder Years if the only interesting character was the dad.
When we meet Simmons’ Mel, he’s cutting down a tree with a chainsaw. Later, he parallel-parks perfectly and rides a bike: Lest we miss the point, we’re told over and over again that he never lets his blindness stop him from living life. This works for awhile, because Simmons is great. But it also feels a bit like, in the process of sitcom-ifying his life, Nash has turned authentic experiences into blind-person sight gags. Not to mention easy metaphors: The closing narration also requires Bateman to say lines like, “When people say seeing-eye dog, they’re wrong. The dog doesn’t see for you, it guides you, [blah blah blah, etc. etc. etc.].”
Do I sound grinchy? Growing Up Fisher is a naughty-heartstrings show in the Modern Family tradition, set in a universe where adults are all goofballs and the kids all have the personalities of sassy twentysomethings, but somehow the episode still builds to a Moment of Sweetness. This could work, theoretically. And there’s something radical in the show’s no-big-deal portrait of divorce. But as mom Joyce, Jenna Elfman is acting into a vacuum. While Simmons gets to play a fast-talking saint, Joyce spends the first episode smoking E-cigarettes, trying on the same jeans as her teenage daughter, and generally being a Jenna Elfman Character beamed in from a totally different sitcom.
There are some zippy one-liners, all the best ones belonging to Simmons. (When Henry’s Korean friend insults his fashion, Simmons beautifully deadpans: “I’d kick you out if I didn’t think it was important for my son to have black friends.”) He and Baker have a nice father-son repartee. Somewhere between the two of them and Bateman’s narration, there’s a much better show that focuses in on the newly divorced blind dad learning to navigate on his own, alongside his cusp-of-teen-years son. But right now, Growing Up Fisher is at once overdetermined and undercooked.
Premiere Grade: C+