‘The Goodwin Games,’ no winner here
Fox sitcom relies on the oldest sort of comedy gimmicks
May 16, 2013
They say that when thieves steal major works of art, they often find that they can’t do anything with them because the works are too well known.
The same thing happens with comedy writers who steal good jokes and premises. If we recognize the stolen goods, we stop laughing.
Fox’s new sitcom “The Goodwin Games” steals a hoary premise: Potential heirs have to perform various onerous or foolish tasks in order to win their inheritance. What’s more, too many of the characters and punch lines on the show have the same familiar feel. Although the cast is good, the general lack of imagination makes it seem unlikely the writers will be able to keep working new variations on the premise every week.
The premiere episode, airing next Monday, May 20, at 8:30 p.m., starts with Benjamin Goodwin (Beau Bridges) sitting in the office of his lawyer, April (Melissa Tang), recording a video to be shown to his heirs after his death. Told he’s finished, he promptly keels over and dies.
We then see Benjamin’s three children getting the news: His type-A surgeon son Henry (Scott Foley), who’s 36, is told while striding through the hospital planning an awards dinner, volunteer work and a date with his fiancée. Benjamin’s daughter, Chloe (Becki Newton), 34, hears it while she’s blowing an audition for what seems to be a bad sci-fi movie.
His younger son, Jimmy (T.J. Miller), 32, gets the call from his sister while being released from prison. He’s at first relieved that the call isn’t from a guy named Frankie Steamroller, to whom he owes money. “He says he’s going to cut off my fingers and put them where my toes are,” Jimmy tells the guard, “which sounds cool, but how long is that surgery?”
The siblings return to their hometown in New Hampshire for the funeral, which is inexplicably attended by some Buddhist monks and is officiated by Lucinda (Kat Foster), Henry’s ex-girlfriend, who, like most hometown exes in sitcoms, is currently available.
At the reading of the will, April tells the three that their father, who was a schoolteacher, left an estate of $23 million, then pops in a VHS tape on which Benjamin tells them that if they’re watching it, then he’s “dead as a…” and holds up a rebus.
“A doornail!” shout Henry and Chloe.
“A sign?” says Jimmy.
“Wrong, Jimmy!” says Benjamin. This stolen joke, in which a recording answers a live person, recurs throughout the show, getting progressively less funny.
Benjamin then tells his children that they have all failed to live up to their potential, so he’s going to give his entire fortune to the one who wins a competition he calls “the Goodwin Games.” In flashbacks, we see that Benjamin, a widower who raised his children on his own, has constantly given them tests.
The next day, Benjamin tells them that they have to play a game of Trivial Pursuit, even though — or perhaps because — they’ve never been able to finish a game since they’re too competitive. A black stranger named Elijah (Jerrod Carmichael) plays along with them.
When the game ends badly, April grabs another tape that deals with that potential outcome. The box of tapes holds enough cassettes for several TV seasons.
Since we know that the inheritance can’t be settled within the first episode, we’re confronted with the likelihood that the siblings will stay in town to face a different whimsical challenge each week and learn a lesson about themselves or each other. The premiere doesn’t make this seem appealing.
The character of Jimmy is a staple of current comedies: a dimwit with a permanently stoned demeanor. When he sneaks in to visit his daughter (Kaitlyn Maher) and tells her that his business trip lasted longer than expected, she of course knows that he’s been in jail and that he stole the present he offers her.
Although Henry seems like a typical sitcom overachiever, Lucinda delivers a speech in which she says that he’s always carrying around other people’s problems or letting them crush him. In screenwriting, this is called telling, not showing.
Chloe, a former smart girl who decided in seventh grade to be popular instead, is a slightly original character. Henry says that when she quit on their father, he quit on them.
“The Goodwin Games” wavers between a reliance on whimsy and a reliance on emotion. Neither one seems like a winning strategy.
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