The Real Star of Jon Cryer’s New Sitcom Is the Always Great Donald Faison
When The Brady Bunch premiered in 1969, its story of two families blending into one never dared mention onscreen that one newlywed had been freed to take a new spouse by her divorce. Series creator Sherwood Schwartz said he always considered Carol (Florence Henderson) to be divorced, whereas Henderson joked (?) that she always thought Carol’s first husband was out of the picture because she’d killed him. Since then, however, TV viewers grew more comfortable rooting for divorced protagonists in The Odd Couple, Kate & Allie, Who’s the Boss?, The Golden Girls, Designing Women, Frasier, Friends, both versions of One Day at a Time, Cougar Town, Mom, Better Things, Grace & Frankie, and, well, Divorce.
NBC’s new sitcom Extended Family, which premieres on Saturday, is the latest sitcom to join this subgenre. The messaging behind such shows is usually that healthy families can make room for new members, and there’s enough love to go around for everyone. I probably wasn’t supposed to come out of this one thinking that its new addition needs to flee, but Trey: run fast, run far.
The family being extended is the Kearneys, of Boston (but of course). After spending the better part of two decades together, Jim (Jon Cryer) and Julia (Abigail Spencer) are less than a year into their divorce as we meet them. But they aren’t one of those ex-couples who can’t stand being around each other. Like the divorced parents of The New Adventures of Old Christine, Julia and Jim rest their identity in large part on remaining friendly and close as co-parents to Grace (Sofia Capanna) and Jimmy Jr. (Finn Sweeney). To that end, they’ve made the same choice as the divorced parents of Splitting Up Together: They’re birdnesting, whereby the kids remain in the family home while the parents take turns living there with them. On weeks when Julia isn’t with the kids, she’s living with Trey (Donald Faison), the owner of the Boston Celtics, who met her as a client of her crisis management services. After she got him through his PR flap, Julia and Trey started dating, and as the series begins, they’ve gotten pretty serious.
It is typical and expected in a sitcom that while most characters will be nutty, at least one should be sensible, to throw all the wacky behavior into sharper relief. In Extended Family, this function is fulfilled by Trey. Other than the inciting incident that brings him and Julia together in the first place (and which is, I assume, one of the plot points critics have been asked not to spoil), Trey is level-headed and stable. Even in the pilot, when a medium-sized disaster occurs while Grace is at camp, Trey’s instincts about what to tell her aren’t just solid but more rational than those of Julia and Jim, who’ve been parenting this child together her whole life.
While I always appreciate a sitcom in which the mother is fallible — as opposed to an unerring, joyless scold — Julia spends so much time in these early episodes (critics were provided the first three) being a hapless ninny that it’s unclear why Trey is into her. Julia’s ex-husband is a whiny victim. Julia’s children are brats. And instead of acting like a grownup who’s responsible for the care of minor children, in concert with someone she once respected enough to have created these children with him, Julia generally tries to weasel out of her responsibilities by managing her way out of her own life’s crises — in other words, brazenly manipulating her closest loved ones. Beyond what we can glean from the show’s key art — namely, that Julia is very beautiful — no effort is made to show us what Trey is getting out of this relationship. (If it eventually becomes part of his backstory that he’s repeating old patterns by seeking out partners who make him feel like they urgently need him, that would make sense, but so far that’s not canon, and I’m not going to stick around to see.)
Given the longevity of Two and A Half Men, NBC is marketing Extended Family as Jon Cryer’s return to sitcoms, including in a first-look clip in which his adult co-stars describe how awed they are to be working with someone of his stature.
But Faison is no slouch either? Sure, Cryer made 262 episodes of Men to Faison’s 182 episodes of Scrubs, but I feel like the stars of all sitcoms that make it past the five-season mark are more or less peers. And while the relative quality of their shows is, of course, a matter of personal taste, it feels uncontroversial to say that someone in a single-camera show set in a hospital — even one as kooky as Sacred Heart — was better positioned to show his full acting range than someone in a multi-camera show playing the nervous, nerdy foil to a guy who got laid a lot.
Playing Zach Braff’s second banana on Scrubs for years means Faison will probably be quite familiar with the feeling of being outshone by a twitchy dork — but that doesn’t make it okay. It’s great that he got to guest on the 2021 quasi-sequel The Wonder Years, but did it have to be while ABC was burning it off over the summer, right before it got canceled? He was excellent in a substantial arc on The L Word: Generation Q, but did it have to be in the thankless role of “rebound guy for a woman who normally dates women,” and in a show that also got canceled and swiftly disappeared from its streaming platform? I appreciate that Scrubs creator Bill Lawrence had him back for the second season of Clone High this year, but couldn’t Lawrence find a role for him in Ted Lasso or Shrinking — shows Lawrence produces that are, to be honest, not for me, but where actors do actually get to show their faces? Why hasn’t Donald Faison gotten the chance to make his Garden State? His would probably be good!
I think it’s laudable for pop culture to portray post-divorce life positively, since plenty of shame still surrounds it, and it’s surely healthier for children not to grow up in households led by two parents who are unhappy together. Given that all three of this show’s adult leads are, themselves, divorced parents, I can appreciate that this project might be personally meaningful to them. Philosophically, Extended Family is sound. Comedically and dramaturgically, I want more from it. Critically, I want more for Donald Faison. Whenever this thing ends — soon would be ideal — I hope he gets it.