Last night, I praised ABC's new super-heroics adventure series 'Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.' Tonight, I was dipping back into ABC's new fall line-up to check out a new comedy starring an actor I've always admired: James Caan. We all know Caan from 'The Godfather,' 'Misery,' and more recently 'Elf,' and it's no secret that the guy can command any scene he's involved in. He's proven that he can be funny before (in feature films like 'Mickey Blue Eyes') so I was hoping that 'Back in the Game,' his latest project, would give him some clever scenes to play with.
I was sorely disappointed.
While compiling my thoughts on the pilot episode of 'Back in the Game' I was somewhat puzzled; this is a television series with a very strong structure at its core. Terry (Maggie Lawson) is a single mother reeling from a messy divorce, forced to move her and her son into her father's house. Terry's father--who still goes by his old baseball nickname, The Cannon (James Caan)--is a gruff, stereotypical sports-dad who was tough on Terry and forced her to play baseball. Terry hates the game and doesn't want The Cannon putting her son through the same fate... but is drawn back into the sport by coaching Danny's (Griffin Gluck) little league team. The team that Terry takes over is comprised of the misfit kids rejected from the town's competitive team... so the show comes with a built-in antagonist in the form of the opposing coach (played by Benjamin Koldyke). So, basically, it's 'Bad News Bears' meets 'How to Live with Your Parents (for the Rest of Your Life).'
The structure is sound--I can see precisely why this project sold. The interior is sound... it's the characters and the humor that are sorely lacking here. 'Back in the Game' isn't funny. It isn't cute. It isn't endearing. Some scenes are mean-spirited, but most are simply dull.
There is no reason to blame any of this on the actors assembled in the cast. Lawson, Caan, even Koldyke do whatever they can with the pages they were given--those pages are just trite. The humor of 'Back in the Game' reminded me of the hack comedian who tries to get by on being raw or offensive to cover up the fact that he doesn't know how to tell a joke. When I realized that 'Back in the Game' was written by Mark & Robb Cullen, the minds behind the film 'Cop Out,' my suspicions were confirmed. (After all, these are the guys who originally titled this series 'She's Got Balls').
The only near-laugh came from Koldyke's Dick Slingbaugh, who is awkwardly obsessed with his own manhood, but even that was an example of an actor trying to make the most of a lacking scene.
The rag-tag collection of misfit ball players is reduced to a collection of hurled insults. The motivation behind every character is a cruel one; there are no characters who are doing anything out of anything other than selfishness. We're clearly supposed to root for Terry to turn this group of misfits into a winning team, but the person who treats them the worst in the episode is Terry herself. Also, oddly, there aren't really any traits to these characters, to speak of. When thinking of how I could describe Terry or Danny, I was at a loss; I wouldn't even be able to describe The Cannon if he wasn't a perfect stereotype. The Cullen brothers put together a workable premise and decided to leave all the rest--the writing--out of the process.
'Back in the Game's premise is sound, as I said, provided you have someone to root for. Given the characters on display in the pilot episode, I think the only thing left for viewers to root for is a swift cancellation.
GRADE: D minus