'The Millers' finale: Has it gotten any nicer?

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Image Credit: Richard Foreman/CBS

Fart jokes and a slightly creepy mother-son Dirty Dancing-themed dance routine were the main takeaways from The Millers’ first episode. Meaning? Its first episode wasn’t exactly impressive.

The CBS sitcom seemed promising, and still does seem promising, because of its star-studded cast: There’s Will Arnett of Arrested Development, Jayma Mays from Glee, Curb Your Enthusiasm’s J.B. Smoove, and Emmy winners Beau Bridges and Margo Martindale. Unfortunately, episode one saw this talented cast trying their best to spit out lackluster material. Thursday’s finale had better material (and no fart jokes!), but still struggled a bit — mostly because it, like the pilot, was a little too mean-spirited.

Perfectly content families that are always kind and thoughtful are boring to watch – not to mention unrealistic. Real families make fun of each other (lovingly — right?). But in The Millers’ case, the Millers themselves simply insulted each other throughout the pilot, throwing out weak joke after weak joke. The weirdest moment came when Nathan (Arnett) revealed to his parents that he has divorced his wife of three years, and his dad responded by… walking out on his wife, Nathan’s mom. Tom (Bridges) stood at the front door with his suitcase, telling wife Carol (Martindale) that the only reason they stayed together all this time was for the kids — and if one of their kids is getting a divorce, why can’t they? This scene is intended to be funny and relatable — hey, the Millers are messed up! Just like your family! Instead, it’s painful. The performances are great — we are talking about Bridges and Martindale here — but the material is so dark that laughter doesn’t come naturally. Family fights over, oh, flushing the toilet: Funny! Family fights over who ate the leftovers: Hilarious! Family fights over deep-seated resentment that’s been welling up for years: Depressing.

The season finale doesn’t approach that same level of hatefulness, choosing instead to focus on regular ol’ sibling rivalry: Debbie (Mays) tries to sabotage Perfect Child Nathan on Mother’s Day by failing to remind him that the holiday’s coming up. Mays is delightful as the conniving sister, and does a good job selling the idea of a Motherless Mother’s Day (where the mom takes a vacation from being a mom, and the child takes a vacation from having a mom). Even so, like her father leaving her mother, Debbie’s resentment toward Nathan has been building up for years. Watching her try to take down Nathan — as a grown woman with her own kid — is sort of… well, sad.

And that could be the point. Maybe we’re underestimating The Millers if we think of it as a surface-level family sitcom. The show wants to flesh out the resentments among its characters and make those resentments funny. And from the pilot to the finale, there’s definitely been improvement in how it deals with these issues. Tom leaving Carol was generally too sad to evoke laughs. Debbie soaking in the victory of Nathan forgetting Mother’s Day was a whole lot lighter, and didn’t have quite the same pity factor.

The Millers will be coming back to CBS for another season, so we’ll get to see how the Millers grow. If the last couple minutes of Thursday’s finale — in which Nathan and Debbie share a sweet moment with their mom — indicate anything, maybe these guys will even start liking each other. Maybe.

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