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'Working the Engels' needs to get to know the Engels first

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Working The Engels
Steve Wilkie/NBC

About two-thirds of the way through the pilot episode of Working the Engels, Ceil Engel, the family’s matriarch, gestures toward her hardworking daughter, Jenna, and tosses off the line, “Where does she get that bossiness from?” It’s an ordinary enough punch line, and Tony winner Andrea Martin delivers it with a wry turn, but it’s hard to know where the joke is supposed to land. It seems designed to reflect back on herself, but Ceil’s more of a busybody than a boss. Everywhere else in the show, Jenna’s competence is played as a sort of out-of-nowhere genetic quirk as her brother and sister are struggling in the game of life. Working the Engels wants its characters quirky and unique, but the pilot tended to forget their personalities for sake of low-hanging, easy jokes (maybe easy laughs, but those don’t always come).

Of course, it would be hard to jam a lot of humor into a pilot that has so much to accomplish. First, Working the Engels has to introduce the problem that will bring the family together—the deceased father who’s passing along his business and his $200,000 debt—and then the family: the well-meaning mom, the over-driven good daughter, Sandy, the pill-popping daughter who says she’s found Jesus, and Jimmy, the kleptomaniac brother who’s kind of a sleaze. Ceil decides the only way to save the family from massive debt is to jump off the roof. After she’s up there, she changes her mind, but trips and falls anyway.

Ceil’s accident brings the whole family together at the hospital, where they discover the newly acquired debt. The ordeal fuels Jenna’s crisis of conscience at her law firm, and she decides to give her boss (the always prim and crazed Jennifer Irwin, of Eastbound & Down) a taste of her own medicine, almost literally. Jenna outs her boss’s STD to the firm in a flaming exit. In successive order, she takes over her father’s job and the rest of the family decides to help out. Their collective reasoning adds up to a sum of: nothing better to do, family sticks together, and redemption.

Working the Engels has a lot of Arrested Development in its genes. Kacey Rohl (who was Abigail Hobbs, daughter of a serial killer, in Hannibal, don’t think too hard about that) is playing the classic Michael Bluth role as the one levelheaded—or at least superficially levelheaded—character in the midst of a bunch of crazies. Sandy is Lindsay Bluth, complete with a vague moral streak that doesn’t quite pay off. Jimmy is Gob Bluth, who girls are willing to sleep with for no apparent reason. And Ceil is Lucille Bluth, if Lucille were ever willing to let herself near Canada. Yes, Working the Engels is set in Canada. It was originally produced by Global TV; you can tell if you listen closely to the way people say “about.”

Of course the basic recipe of Arrested Development appears over and over in film and TV. It’s basically: Take one straight man (or woman), add many, many foils. Instant comedy! Results: everything from Better off Ted to Don’t Trust the B—- In Apartment 23 to The Godfather (just watch this video). Working the Engels assembles the requisite ingredients, but it doesn’t pay much attention to their individual quirks. It’s like a person who wants to learn to bake, but still gleefully substitutes baking soda with baking powder because there isn’t that much of a difference.

In the last scene of Working the Engel‘s pilot, Ceil says she can’t walk without her crutches, notices a car accident, and then runs over to try to recruit a client for the law firm to defend. The joke would land a lot better if Jenna’s comment about them not being necessary was set up earlier. Instead, the moment’s just indicative of Working the Engel‘s lack of attention to its characters: It flits between a multitude of ordinary types and plots while forgetting to build to something more complex.