It’s strange to think CBS, the network behind 2 Broke Girls, The Big Bang Theory, and The Odd Couple reboot would be considered a trailblazer of the sitcom industry; by all accounts, CBS has applied their comedic and dramatic templates repeatedly (and effectively) over the years. But as everyone tries to figure out their place in the new television landscape, CBS has been a network showing why it remains the #1 network on television (a fact it flaunts during every commercial break); because in between those long-running standards, CBS is exploring series like God Friended Me, Mom, Limitless (RIP)… and most recently, the already-underrated The Unicorn.
What really makes The Unicorn special is its ability to successfully navigate the cliche-laden landscape of domestic dramas and family comedies – and occasionally, transcend them in subtle, exciting ways.
The Unicorn, though a single camera comedy, follows in the same iterative vein we’ve seen recently on the network, especially with series like Mom and Elementary; The Unicorn is uncannily familiar, both in terms of format and content. But inside that familiarity, The Unicorn pushes its genre forward in small, but interesting ways, a story blending grief and inspiration that’s become a rather charming, surprisingly moving little comedy through its first ten episodes.
Starring Walton Goggins as Wade, a widowed landscape architect, trying to figure out what the rest of his life looks like after losing his wife to cancer. Smartly, The Unicorn is set a year after Wade’s tragic loss; it’s been long enough that his family’s re-established some semblance of normalcy, but not long enough for Wade, or his daughters Grace and Natalie, to really be comfortable in their new, unexpected life.
Given the somber nature of its premise, it would be easy for The Unicorn to fall into a bottomless pit of saccharine family stories, and forget that it is a comedy first. Thankfully, The Unicorn has the limitless talent of Goggins at their disposal, which gives the series unexpected versatility; his ability to move between moments of humor and emotion provide the very building blocks for the series’ DNA, channeling it into a rather touching little series about family, fatherhood, and marriage.
It helps that it features two extremely talented young actors playing his daughters; Ruby Jay (as Grace) and Makenzie Moss (as Natalie) are both fantastic in their roles, allowing the dynamic play out in multiple generations; how does Wade approach being a single man and a father, and how do his two daughters grow up without their mother around?
As trite as it may sound, trust me: The Unicorn has plenty of tricks up its sleeve, to keep itself from feeling like a carbon copy of the many, many family dramas it shares a premise with. The most obvious are its priorities about being a comedy of life, rather than a comedy of grief: The Unicorn leans on its supporting cast of characters to bring color to Wade’s world, where the aforementioned shades of Cougar Town come shining through. With its ancillary characters, The Unicorn is still able to tell stories of partnership and parenting, finding contrast in the differences between their lives and Wade’s, an how much easier the trials of adult life are when you have someone next to you through it all.
It also helps it has one of the best supporting casts on TV: Rob Corddry and Michaela Watkins are phenomenal as Wade’s closest family friends, an upper middle-class family fighting the attrition of repetition by embracing each other’s zany qualities. They provide the comedic energy, where Omar Benson Miller and Maya Lynne Robinson offer some of the more traditionally satisfying family stories, with a chemistry and delivery most young shows would kill to have; an arc where Miller’s Ben tries to recapture his old personality, or recurring jokes about them constantly having other people’s kids wandering around their home, show a mature, developed understanding of its core relationships, immediately establishing it as one of the season’s more intriguing debuts.
What really makes The Unicorn special is its ability to successfully navigate the cliche-laden landscape of domestic dramas and family comedies – and occasionally, transcend them in subtle, exciting ways. This potential can be seen most clearly in “Wade Delayed” and “Turkeys and Traditions,” the show’s seventh and eighth episodes. In “Wade Delayed,” writer Jacque Edmonds Cofer separates Wade from his family, forcing him to contend with the fact that he’s the only remaining parent in their life, and the anxiety that could so easily form around that idea – and snowball, to the point Wade is having a panic attack during a plane takeoff.
During his panic attack, “Wade Delayed” displays a remarkable amount of patience, letting the camera linger on Goggins as Wade tries to gather himself mentally, faced with a stressful situation where he’d normally lean on his wife. It is visited again in “Turkeys and Traditions,” pausing for a long shot after he reads a note his wife wrote on a family Thanksgiving recipe: it gives a presence to his passed wife (in a way that sidesteps the easy-to-apply criticism of fridging on its premise), and it also allows Goggins to tap into his evocative talents, capturing brief moments where Wade’s well-chiseled facade falls away, and he feels just as lost as he did the day his wife passed away.
Thanks to Goggins and the exquisitely cast group of talent around him, The Unicorn is able to coast through some of its more familiar beats, and really dig into the moments of clarity it offers its main characters as they make their way through life’s mundanities. It is measured in a way so many comedies of its ilk are not, not afraid to let moments linger, or scenes carry on for a few beats longer than you’d expect. The rhythm is consistent, but slightly unfamiliar, in really exciting ways: though after 10 episodes, The Unicorn hasn’t done anything I’d call particularly revolutionary – but to its credit, it’s also not trying to bite off more than it can chew.
I’ll always be the first to argue there is always room for family comedy; whether that comes in the form of Cougar Town, Fresh off the Boat, or even something like Go On, there’s a certain reliability to be found in well-told versions of established concepts. The Unicorn is exactly that from episode one – but in its most recent run, has hinted at being something slightly more than that, slowing down its pace every so slightly to tell contemplative stories about failure, unexpected connections, and the human mind’s uncanny ability to move on (even if our hearts aren’t ready to). In those moments, The Unicorn shows a ceiling higher than anyone could’ve expected, one I hope the series finds in 2020.
The Unicorn airs Thursdays at 8:30pm ET on CBS