TV Land’s branding makeover got off to a promising start with “Younger,” but takes a less-sharp turn with the premiere of two not-terribly compatible comedies, “The Jim Gaffigan Show” and “The Impastor.” The former congenially adds to the long list of series built around a comedian playing a slightly tweaked version of himself, which has produced dozens of failures since “Seinfeld.” The latter hinges on a desperate guy who is forced to impersonate a pastor, a charade that produces a too-familiar series of gags and, despite Michael Rosenbaum’s appeal, one whose longevity will likely require another kind of divine intervention.
If nothing else, viewing these programs together underscores that giving a network a facelift is a trial-and-error process, one in which executives are more apt to stumble into something that works than devise a plan and stick to it.
Gaffigan doesn’t have to stretch much playing Jim Gaffigan, a successful standup comic with an entire handful of young kids and a wife, Jeannie (Ashley Williams), who cheerfully tolerates his general ineptitude in dealing with them. Leveraging his membership in the comedy fraternity, the show loads up on celebrity and media cameos (including the likes of Jon Stewart and Chris Rock), taking off on flights of fancy, like Jim’s fear of having a vasectomy; and his paranoia about being identified as a Christian boomeranging back at him through the media ecosystem.
Happily married, Jim’s best pal is another comic, Dave (a very amusing Adam Goldberg), a neurotic womanizer prone to mocking Jim’s hectic life — in one episode hitting on Jeannie’s sister when she pays a visit, much to his friend’s chagrin.
There are several funny lines tossed off within the show’s banter (“You look like every bad guy on ‘Downton Abbey,’” or Jim describing his wife as a “Shiite Catholic” on the subject of procreation), but the series also devotes too much time to bits from Gaffigan’s squeaky-clean standup act, such as his love affair with bacon and constant preoccupation with what he might eat next.
Some of the episodes almost rise to the level of inspired farce, and like Gaffigan, the series has an affable quality to it; still, the premise generally feels a lot slimmer than its star is, as those around the self-deprecating comic constantly remind him.
In “The Impastor” (a really awful title, incidentally), Rosenbaum plays Buddy Dobbs, a general ne’er-do-well who finds himself deeply in debt to the wrong people. Panicking, he clambers onto a bridge to end it all, only to have a kindly clergyman seek to intervene, not-so-comically plunging to his death instead.
As luck, convenience and lazy writing would have it, the late reverend was on his way to a new job where nobody has met him, allowing Buddy to assume his identity. The too-coy twist is that the pastor left his old church after coming out as gay, which leads to additional complications that include fending off romantic advances from two church staffers: a gay man (Mike Kosinski) and straight woman (“Episodes’” Mircea Monroe), the latter convinced Buddy might be willing. She’s right, of course, but he doesn’t dare prove it, lest he blow his cover.
Faster than you can say “The Riches,” Buddy is inexplicably winning over most of the congregation and his cheerful aide (Sara Rue, deserving of better) by spouting empty platitudes and offering unorthodox spiritual advice — a flourish that simply makes these churchgoing folk look like simpletons.
“I knew I couldn’t fool these people for long,” Buddy says in voiceover, having hatched a plan to clean out the dead man’s bank account and move on. Instead, the series forces him to stay, naturally, while proceeding in serialized fashion, with Buddy facing lingering threats of detection by either the hoods or the police.
Showrunner Christopher Vane has some fun with the miraculous saves Buddy experiences (could that be a sign, he wonders), but goes to the well too often in having Rosenbaum respond to awkward situations with blank stares and double takes. Ultimately, it feels like one joke stretched far too thin, with the added complication that its jokey approach to religion is likely to offend some people without compensating for that with thoughtful satire.
Buddy is right about one thing: In any ordinary world, he wouldn’t be able to fool people for long. For “Impastor” to have much of a future beyond the previewed episodes, he’ll have to start by fooling viewers into thinking there’s really a show here.