Though there are a few stumbles, NBC‘s Council of Dads has one of the best pilot episodes of television to come along in a while. The pro and con of that fact is that it doesn’t actually give audiences a solid feel for how the future of the show plays out. It’s something of a self-enclosed structure and plot arc which certainly lets us know where we are at the end, but it is delivered in a way that can’t really continue. The upside is a year-long play at establishment of a family that can skip past huge swaths of exposition by forcing you to simply accept situational shifts via time jumps. That’s a brilliant move that opens a lot of doors when it comes to laying out relationships as they expand and develop, especially when some of them are atypical, to say the least. The downside is that going into episode two we don’t quite know how things are going to move beyond what we get in the synopsis, which causes a lot of uncertainty when it comes to predicting viewer return.
Inspired by Bruce Feiler’s book, Council of Dads revolves around Scott Perry’s diverse family and friends. When a surprise health scare threatens to tear his world apart, Scott hits on the unique idea that he wants to enlist a Council of Dads to help raise his children if he can’t be there to do it himself – Anthony (Clive Standen), Scott’s oldest friend; Larry (Michael O’Neill), Scott’s no-nonsense AA sponsee; and Oliver (J. August Richards), Scott’s doctor and his wife’s dearest friend.
The pilot takes us through a year of getting to know these people, and many more, as Scott’s family and life are offered up in a get-to-know-you, sad for sadness’ sake extravaganza. Scott has a lot of people around him, which makes for enough interpersonal sparks in the best of circumstances, and while running through a blitz aids in the overall establishment of a lot of characters, it means that we’re getting only key moments of the downward, emotional spiral… which can be exhausting.
While “Loss/Grief Dramas” are growing in popularity, and proving they have staying power, Council of Dads might not ultimately be one, having effectively skipped a potential first season of sorrow porn to jump to the titular dynamic. Thus, while the pilot may well pull your heart apart, and lays the groundwork for interesting characters, both kids and dads, the tone is not only going to have to shift, it may be a bit hard to decipher, even when you’re in it.
Dad Larry is rather a crotchety guy we don’t know much about, except that when he tells a snarky teen it’s ok to be mad, but go run some laps, it’s like waving a magic wand. Dad Anthony, who so far shows off Standen’s abilities, is pretty laid back and more on board with the idea than you might have suspected. Dad Oliver is a doctor who doesn’t have, or need, a lot of choice in the matter either way. We know the trying times that brought them here, but there’s no shtick to what comes next, only a group of characters.
There are series that have managed to rise to the challenge of a “figuring things out as we go” episodic construction, but not that many. For all that we’ve seen the fear and uncertainty, and we’re sure to grieve for a while, we’ve already done the, “You’re not my dad,” scene, and there are only so many times you can string, “I’m just flying by the seat of my pants here,” scenes together.
The show’s hope really comes by way of the kids (and O’Neill, who can do anything), who potential fans have to get behind if they’re going to tune in, and Michele Weaver (as Luly Perry) carries most of the weight involved in connecting the dots there. The pilot did nothing more clever than giving her an arc to call her own, because it was the grounding the show needed. Luckily, it was put together in a way that let Weaver deliver complexities that many of the show’s other elements lacked to one degree or another simply by virtue of having too many plates spinning at once.
It’s a show that somehow screams of a balance and subtlety that don’t actually exist in the pilot. That’s perhaps because it’s a showy pilot trying to deliver an unknown, but leaves you to guess if it does the job. It isn’t, to stick with an example, so much that Dad Larry is meant to be taking a folding chair out of the back of his beat-up pick-up as a thing he is actually doing, but rather as the sort of thing he does. It’s an effort at getting you to read between the lines, because that’s how you’ll know what you’re returning for, but that’s dangerous.
Still, if this one can stick with the strengths it lays out and avoids ticking off the cliche plot points, it’s going to be a family-focused drama with a huge following.