In his zany standup days, Woody Allen told a joke about F. Scott Fitzgerald announcing he had written “Great Expectations,” after which Allen observes that it was wholly unnecessary, since Charles Dickens had already written it. It’s hard not to feel that way about “Life in Pieces,” a multigenerational, multi-point-of-view family comedy, which CBS went ahead and ordered, even though it’s really just “Modern Family” under a different name. Although the show features a topnotch cast, and marks a departure from Chuck Lorre’s multi-camera dominance on the network, “Life,” charitably, feels like one of those shows best watched while you’re making other plans.
Like “Modern Family” (and just attach that disclaimer to practically every paragraph here), the series squeezes a lot of story into each half-hour, with multiple plots involving the related characters, who, in the pilot, eventually unite for a rather morbid event: The family patriarch, John (James Brolin), decides to celebrate his 70th birthday with a mock funeral, sipping a cocktail while friends and family eulogize him.
This is all taken with surprisingly good humor by his wife (Dianne Wiest), while the assorted kids all have their own problems. They include youngest son Greg (Colin Hanks), who, along with his wife (Zoe Lister-Jones), are flailing around in trying to handle their new baby; son Matt (“The Newsroom’s” Thomas Sadoski), who has a rather complicated romance brewing with co-worker Colleen (Angelique Cabral); and daughter Heather (“Breaking Bad’s” Betsy Brandt), who, with her husband Tim (Dan Bakkedahl), is struggling with the notion of her son going off to college.
That’s a very talented roster of folks (plus a guest shot by “Key & Peele’s” Jordan Peele), and there are some amusing moments scattered throughout the premiere, written by Justin Adler and directed by Jason Winer. Still, if that’s going to be the template going forward, beyond engineering a trade to ABC for “Black-ish” and a player to be named later, it’s hard to see how this fits with Monday-night running mate “2 Broke Girls.” (And although “Pieces” and “Modern Family” air on different networks, they do hail from the same studio, 20th Century Fox Television.)
Then again, CBS’ expectations have been systematically lowered by its struggles to build on the success of “The Big Bang Theory,” and after serving as a lonely bastion of traditional sitcoms, the network has largely decided to swim with the tide. As a consequence, both its new fall comedies (the other being “Angel From Hell”) are single-camera affairs, without the laughter cues associated with appreciative studio audiences.
With so many talented players — and a “Big Bang” lead-in initially, while NFL football holds down Thursday nights for CBS — “Life in Pieces” shouldn’t be summarily dismissed. Still, if the pilot is indicative of what’s to come, this is one series that doesn’t add up to the sum of its pieces.