We gave it a C+
Oh, to be single and twentysomething on TV. Every day is the Saturday your parents never let you have when you were a wastrel teen. You get to watch TV all day, you get to party all night, maybe you have a job, maybe you don’t, but it’s okay either way, because everyone knows growing up for real doesn’t start until you turn 30. Or when you get pregnant. Eat and drink and pop molly, tube folk! For tomorrow, you die the death of a thousand little orthodontia payments.
Cooper Barrett’s Guide to Surviving Life – a tediously not concise title — is Fox’s latest attempt to engage viewers with the silly spectacle of new century quasi-adults bumbling toward maturity. Your generational avatar is a wry and affable Pan played by Jack Cutmore-Scott (Kingsman: The Secret Service), a softer Ryan Reynolds with wavy hair. Cooper is freshly sprung from college when we meet him in the premiere, moving into an apartment with a pair of caricatures, Neal, The Nerdy One (Charlie Saxton), and Barry, The Blundering One (James Earl). Because all friend squads must be foursomes, Team Cooper is rounded out by his This is 40-ish older brother, Josh (Justin Bartha), a married lawyer expecting a child and therefore gripped by losing-my-youth existential panic. Cooper’s bawdy bachelor pad is the place Josh goes to escape the wife, Leslie (Liza Lapira), who’s introduced as one of those You were supposed to be home five minutes ago! fun suckers. This quickly changes, but yeesh. The show’s other resident female is Kelly (Meaghan Rath), a friendly massage therapist who also lives in the building. She takes an instant liking to her new neighbors, being peers and all. The boys respond with AROOOGA! eyeballs and implied boners.
What’s interesting about this set-up is that it doesn’t survive the pilot. The story, tracking the theft and recovery of a big screen TV, surprises and sometimes even amuses by a micro-epic that spans years and brings Cooper to the twilight of his twenties. In doing so, it skips over most of the conventional single life folly you think the show is going to be about and camps on the final act of Cooper’s protracted coming of age. Cooper Barrett is a 1 Corinthians 13:11 comedy for the delayed adulthood set (“When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things”), but with more beer and pop culture references.
Put another way: it wants to be The Hangover. Each episode of Cooper Barrett is a crazily plotted adventure that begins with Cooper in some insane predicament – getting tortured by thugs; being held at gunpoint by Paula Abdul – and then backtracks to show how he arrived at said predicament, and then resolves it. You assume Cooper’s peril is a consequence of reckless youth, but they’re actually the consequence of shenanigans in pursuit of maturity. Every story ends with Cooper addressing the viewer, reflecting on events and extracting some life lessons.* These homilies flirt with genuine sincerity; you half expect a shooting star to arc across the screen, trailed by the words “The More You Know.” An ongoing subplot has Cooper and friends trying to start a business that sells a hangover cure – a metaphor for the show’s perspective (sobering up = growing up). Cooper’s buddies remain stuck in place so they can deliver jokes per their caricature, but big brother Josh undergoes a noticeable morph: by the second episode, he’s become less spooked by family life, and Leslie, thankfully, is scrubbed of her scold. They become equal partners in sweating the cost of parenthood to their cool, as real parents do. (We do?) Their stories are basically plots of the defunct NBC series Up All Night in miniature.
*Following the heroes of Mr. Robot and Limitless, Cooper Barrett is the latest twentysomething TV protagonist who acknowledges his audience and/or the unseen camera documenting his life. (Maybe I’ve been watching way too much football lately, but Cooper’s detached self-consciousness in the face of chaos reminds me of the “Mayhem” character played by Dean Winters in those Allstate commercials.) While not a new storytelling device by any means, the gambit these days strikes me as an acknowledgment of a generation that blogs, vlogs, and storifies, that lives life while narrating it to a camera at the end of a selfie stick. Call this: selfie shtick TV. I expect this trend to continue, and perhaps – hopefully – get more radical in execution.
Cooper Barrett continues a trend at Fox partial toward man-child protagonists (Andy Samberg in Brooklyn Nine-Nine; Rob Lowe in The Grinder; John Stamos in Grandfathered) and soft edge comedy. It’s like the network has taken on some grand cultural mission of asking a nation of privileged, narcissistic men to grow the eff up, already. Where The Grinder and Grandfathered skews toward the older end of the Fox demo and Brooklyn Nine-Nine aims at the middle, Cooper Barrett seems to be going for the younger end. But while the show is cluttered with real twentysomething concerns — money, dating, Instagram — I can’t imagine real millennials seeing much of themselves in this show. (For a far more successful sitcom that explores similar generational themes from a more intimate, relational perspective, with R-rated abandon and a deeper understanding of people, check out FX’s You’re The Worst.) I can’t imagine anyone laughing much while watching it, either. Cooper and Co. are more archetypes than characters, and while the pilot’s time jump creates a premise with a modestly interesting point of difference, it also introduces a flaw: despite the hard work of an appealing cast, you never feel the chemistry and storied camaraderie you’d expect from friends with a lot of shared life history together. The gonzo plotting is either tepid gonzo or the wrong kind of gonzo. I gave up after episode 3, a 24 homage that gives way to 24 spoofing that subverts any want for reality the quasi-cartoonish Cooper Barrett might have. Despite the appearance of inspiration, Cooper Barrett’s Guide to Surviving Life sorely lacks it. Don’t expect it to survive for long. C+