There comes a time in every white, male, generically affable actor’s life when the thing to do is lead a sitcom. That time is, approximately: middle age; past critical acclaim (or past the point of caring about it); and fall, when the leaves turn, the harvest begins, and another life cycle of network television begins anew. For two actors on popular American television network CBS, now is that time.
Joel McHale and Matt LeBlanc are both leading men coming off series very unlikely to spawn syndication deals, entering into series seemingly designed explicitly to generate syndication deals. McHale was the face of Community, the ingeniously meta Dan Harmon sitcom that eked out six seasons on two networks (and remains in search of a movie). Now he stars in The Great Indoors, the saga of an outdoor magazine writer’s quest to conquer the wildest terrain of all: a workplace filled with internet-fluent 20-somethings.
LeBlanc fronted Episodes, the Showtime half hour that had the Friends alum play a fictionalized version of himself on a British American sitcom. (He’s also the first non-British cohost of Top Gear, with the less-than-warm reception to match.) Now he heads Man With a Plan, in which a contractor cares for his three children for the first time in their lives and finds that, when you view it in a certain light, parenting is a job of its own.
These shows are the furthest back of all possible throwbacks, and they’re designed for broad appeal, not critical acclaim. Each man’s new home would work perfectly as a punch line on their old one. They’ve gone from generating countless showbiz jokes to inhabiting them.
For both stars, it’s something of a reversal of their preexisting career trajectories. Both LeBlanc and McHale had done popular and profitable before: McHale hosted 12 seasons and more than 300 episodes of E’s pop culture digest The Soup and, well, Friends money is Friends money. Both Community and Episodes seemed like a pivot away from convention and toward a brave new world, where a little-watched sitcom could be granted a third life by a flailing tech giant and “television about television” could be considered only slightly more niche than “television about friends.” Then again, both Community and Episodes had a somewhat symbiotic relationship with their leading men: The fact that McHale’s Jeff Winger looked like the kind of handsome guy whom the (show’s) world revolved around was part of the joke; in LeBlanc’s case, it was the joke. McHale and LeBlanc have simply stopped using their leading-man qualities for irony and starting using them for charisma.
But which actor is doing his return to Conventional Sitcom Mode best? Here’s our comprehensive breakdown of the premieres that bookend this week on The Eye. (Kevin James doesn’t count, both because his vehicle premiered last month and because that guy never left Conventional Sitcom Mode. Meanwhile, Matthew Perry has already taken not one but two swings at a network hit in recent years and missed, so he’s sitting this one out.)
Back in August, Liza Snyder replaced Jenna “Pam” Fischer as Man With a Plan’s resident wife, Andi, whose return to work as a medical professional kick-starts LeBlanc’s sudden involvement in his children’s lives. On the one hand, Andi is strangely willing to take long lunch and/or bathroom breaks to check in on her husband (and share scenes with him at all — even though the whole series is based on their separation), bumping her up several points on the Indulgence Scale. On the other, she actually sticks to her guns and forces her husband to interact with his children’s teacher and supervise chores while she resumes her career. Also, Snyder and LeBlanc are both in their late 40s, negating a classic feature of the sitcom couple: age differential, which is closely tied to looks differential. It’s a slight pivot from the blatant fantasy universe that is the average studio soundstage.
The Great Indoors does not have this problem. Given that the series is built on the gaping age chasm between McHale and his listicle-assembling coworkers, it’s little surprise that the “will” in his will-they-won’t-they is Brooke (Susannah Fielding), the 30-something intermediary who calms McHale down and offers the kids complimentary trophies. As an added bonus, she’s also the boss’s daughter. (In the most depressing casting choice of the fall, Stephen Fry somehow got suckered into this.) The pesky HR people who serve as a recurring joke in the pilot would not approve. Along with the improbably gorgeous woman McHale meets on Tinder in the second episode’s inevitable-and-inevitably-painful online-dating plot, Brooke plays the younger, credulous audience to McHale’s sardonic joke machine perfectly. She’s there to steal eyeballs, not laughs. There’s even an offscreen fiancé for her to ditch because her mansplaining colleague is that irresistible!
For a blandly attractive dude to deliver a punch line, he needs a less blandly attractive lady to serve as his straight woman. Brooke serves that nakedly utilitarian purpose better than Andi, even if Andi is more of a proper colead — after all, a colead means sharing the spotlight.
Advantage: McHale. Adoring trophy > life partner, in terms of old-school leading man roles, if not humanity.
With its complete and total contempt for virtually any character who isn’t its long-suffering lead, The Great Indoors immediately handicaps itself on the sidekick front. Stephen Fry is barely a character, just an improbable British man who somehow ended up running an adventure magazine based out of Chicago; the rest of the ensemble are basically interchangeable Youngs, distinguished either by their adulation for McHale and his character’s macho posturing (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, answering the crucial question “What is McLovin up to in 2016?”), their vocal fry (Christine Ko), or their demographics (that “diversity” is quite literally a punch line tells you everything you need to know about The Great Indoors).
Man With a Plan sticks with tradition and gives LeBlanc a brother played by SNL alum and fellow Showtime dramedy refugee Kevin Nealon, introduced in the second episode as LeBlanc’s business partner and [spells out REAL AMERICA via skywriting] fellow Pittsburgh Steelers fan. Along with three children, one of whom is under 10, pronounces her r’s as w’s, and is therefore criminally cute, it’s as solid a base for high jinks and heartwarming resolutions as any multicam comedy needs, proving that a key to any supporting cast is not baking a pathological hatred for them into the very fabric of the show. There’s even a misunderstanding in the second episode that one could conceivably call “zany”!
Advantage: LeBlanc. McHale has a collection of walking targets, but LeBlanc has a real partner in crime.
The majority of Man With a Plan’s humor comes from Jurassic-era gender roles and the show’s surprise that said roles can be changed up without the world falling to pieces. Matt becomes room mom! The other dad who takes care of his kids acts like a girl and doesn’t even drink beer! It gets old, until a weird running gag about how the middle child can’t keep his hand out of his pants makes you beg for more. Still, the overall trajectory is toward LeBlanc realizing that he “was getting away with murder” and is now obligated to contribute his fair share, so the venom is limited.
The Great Indoors has no such compunction to keep its family unit at maximum heartwarming capacity. And so the texting jokes fly, unencumbered by the necessity for the characters to be nice to one another. LeBlanc makes lame jokes about his kids being addicted to Wi-Fi. McHale makes jokes about “bidding” on a potential Tinder match. Both shows are equally uncomfortable with the way both the world and the television that represents it works. One simply expresses that in the awkwardness of its premise. The other lets its resentment seethe, mostly through the main character, who serves as its mouthpiece.
These being sitcoms, though, the quality of a performance is ultimately judged by its comedy, and Man With a Plan’s insistence on hugging it out guarantees it has a much more pleasant aftertaste.
Advantage: LeBlanc. Man With a Plan may have switched out its own ammo, but that’s ultimately to its advantage.
With a 2–1 lead, LeBlanc’s return to form is ultimately the smoother, more complete, more resiliently and insistently textbook one. Enjoy the pile of syndication money, Matt! Friends money stays Friends money, but it’s always good to diversify.