Fish-out-of-water sitcoms, classic as they are, usually rely on an amount of give and take. The show’s lead is typically a rebel put into some new situation where he or she disrupts the established order of things, but there are always lessons to learn. By the end, the hero realizes something special about his or her new environment, even making a few friends along the way. It’s a dynamic that’s held true for shows like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Northern Exposure, Arrested Development, 3rd Rock From the Sun, and even this year’s Son of Zorn. Not so in CBS’s The Great Indoors, which premieres Thursday in the plum timeslot after The Big Bang Theory. Its protagonist gains no knowledge and develops no empathy, because he’s surrounded by the vilest creatures in human history—millennials.
The Great Indoors is a show that somehow feels venomous and toothless at the same time. It lobs insult after insult at its chosen target—the over-coddled, under-skilled, internet-obsessed twenty-somethings taking over offices today—but without any great insight, and in service of no larger point. CBS has always been a network that skews toward a slightly older audience, and with The Great Indoors it has matched subject and format perfectly. This is a hilariously staid, old-school, laugh-track sitcom about a man whose only purpose is to grit his teeth and gripe about young people. It’d be funny, if it weren’t so, well, unfunny—hokey stereotypes just don’t make for compelling comedy.
The sad irony is that the hero Jack Gordon is played by Joel McHale, who over the last six years played the similarly sarcastic Jeff Winger on the cult NBC sitcom Community. That show made fun of the fish-out-of-water concept and took every opportunity to subvert and comment on old sitcom tropes. Now, McHale is trapped in a role that’s barely one-dimensional. Jack Gordon is a Bear Grylls type, a magazine reporter famed for his outdoor exploits and round-the-world adventuring. But, times are changing, the print industry is collapsing (as everyone helpfully repeats throughout the pilot episode) and so he must return to the company office to work with a bunch of bloggers straight out of college. Heaven forfend.
McHale, a tanned, toned beanpole of a man, is oddly cast as a rugged outdoorsman. But he is very good at lobbing insults, and that’s what he does to the assembled “online-content generators” at his new workplace, sardonically mocking them for the simple fact of their existence. One of them clings to an emotional-comfort animal (“is that one of those special dogs that people can take anywhere?” Jack asks), another is prone to bursting into tears, all of them receive medals for completing menial tasks, and they gawk in horror when they realize Jack doesn’t have a Twitter or a Facebook account. “It’s like he doesn’t exist,” one of them gasps.
Jack even mocks his coworkers’ diversity, as if the next generation is somehow rubbing it in everyone else’s faces by ... not being all white men. The team’s social media expert Emma (Christine Ko) is an Asian woman, and the writer Mason (Shaun Brown) is a black man who may be gay or may simply not conform to such binary labeling—Jack’s too afraid to figure it out. Aren’t millennials so annoying about things like who they decide to have sex with? To Jack, they certainly are, and his only solace comes from drinking whiskey with the magazine’s owner (played by Stephen Fry), and flirting with his daughter, who’s serving as Jack’s new editor.
As you might have concluded, none of Jack’s observations about the generation below him is particularly trenchant. Eventually, he wins the trust of the young cohort by bringing in a bear cub for them to play with, understanding that memes, cute animal videos, and anything else that seems like Buzzfeed brought to life is the only language they can speak. The classic fish-out-of-water model is ignored. Jack, it seems, has nothing to learn from these people—except “useless” information like how Instagram works, or what a live-stream is.
It’s most likely that The Great Indoors is a blip, destined to serve as a cultural artifact for a particular moment in history when simply being born in the ’80s or ’90s made someone worthy of mockery. The show’s ignorance feels totemic, though—there’s nothing wrong with poking fun at younger folk, of course, but it’s can’t be the premise of an entire television series, certainly not one with any hope of a future. “I got passed over for promotion again?” Emma complains at one point. “What do I have to do, it’s been eight weeks!” That line, and this show, feels perfectly emblematic of CBS’s flaws: The Great Indoors seems unwilling to paint a cord-cutting generation as anything but a band of entitled fools destined for their comeuppance. But as a typical millennial might respond: Y u mad tho?