Broadcast comedies are living in a strange time in a post-Modern Family and The Big Bang Theory age, an era where there are relatively few comedies (or any shows) drawing traditionally healthy live and +3 audiences. It’s nearly impossible for execs to figure out what is going to catch on, which has led to definitively different programming strategies for the Big Four. ABC’s had the most coherent strategy, building a strong, diverse lineup of family shows on the single-camera template of Modern Family‘s success; CBS has mostly followed suit with their own multi-cam mega-hit (while dipping its toes into other waters, with The Unicorn and the Big Bang prequel spin-off Young Sheldon), securing their lineup for the better part of the past decade. FOX has mostly given up on comedies (except for Last Man Standing), and NBC… well, NBC hasn’t had a fucking clue what to do with its lineup since the end of Parks and Recreation and Community, unable to replicate their success, or find a natural counterpart to its only big hit since, the extremely high-concept The Good Place.
In its attempt to bridge the generational divide between late Boomers and millennials, Indebted ends up a family comedy for nobody.
That context is important in trying to decipher Indebted, NBC’s latest foray into original comedies, and its first new multi-camera studio comedy since the underappreciated Abby’s brief run last spring. Created by The Goldbergs writer Dan Levy, Indebted is NBC’s attempt at intersecting every individual broadcast comedy trend of the past decade into a single show, a multi-generational family comedy about parenting, relationships, and (yes) fiscal responsibility (albeit one with none of the casting diversity of ABC’s series; Indebted‘s cast is white AF). Unfortunately, in its attempt to be everything, Indebted is really nothing at all, unwilling to commit to any of its many burgeoning identities in a way that robs every one of its first seven episodes from having any lasting dramatic, emotional, or comedic impact.
Indebted simply can’t decide what kind of show it wants to be; something that’s apparent in everything from the marketing around the series, to the dichotomous nature of its lead performances. Indebted very much wants to be a “hip” series, commenting on the uncomfortable financial positions so many American families are in; it also wants to be a broad, Everybody Loves Raymond-style comedy stacked with white privilege (an entire episode focuses around how toxic and damaging neighborhood “gossip” can be, to poor effect). That’s not to say those two things can’t co-exist (*cough* Mom *cough*) but the balance is a tough one to find; and Indebted makes no actual attempt beyond its fundamental premise – broke parents move in with their adult children – to engage with the harsh truths of its story.
For example, the third episode finds the family patriarch (Steven Weber) accidentally giving away $5,000 to a stranger on Venmo, a conflict that lasts for precisely two punchlines and one snarky aside from his son (Adam Pally), who complains his parents will have to spend another “three months living with them”. Though one might think this an important foundational piece to build on – how technology can prey on those who don’t know the drawbacks, the fact Venmo has no refund policy, the struggle to take care of children and parents who spend money like children – it is but a few asides in the episode, a thoughtless punchline carelessly crafted into a meaningless bit of conflict to dispose of immediately.
It’s a strange choice – but the more one watches the dissonance at the very core of Indebted, it begins to make sense why everything feels so miscalculated. In its attempt to bridge the generational divide between late Boomers and millennials (two groups of people that most likely aren’t watching TV together anyway), Indebted ends up a series for nobody. This point is driven home by the lead performances themselves: where Weber and Fran Drescher (making her much-publicized return to broadcast television) offer traditionally big, theatrical comedic performances, co-stars Abby Elliott and Adam Pally offer a completely different type of energy, honed by their shared experience with improv work and single-camera comedies. Weber and Drescher are clearly playing to the audience, and to great effect: Elliott and Pally’s performances are more designed to play off each other, and the dissonance between those approaches shows, both in the writing and performance of each episode.
The tonal whiplash has dominated each of the seven episodes to air to increasingly tiny audiences each week, which means Indebted‘s days may be numbered, even if were to somehow get the major creative retooling it needs (also – for a show about parents navigating how to raise two young kids, there is little-to-no visible family interaction). There is a version of Indebted that could be a valuable building block for NBC’s next generation of blue collar comedy (which, to date, appears to be the phenomenal Superstore, the waning years of Brooklyn Nine-Nine and…. nothing?); but this generic, undercooked collection of Facebook references and upper middle-class drama ain’t it, more proof that a talented cast and tried-and-true premise isn’t the guarantee it once was.