Few things are more reliable these days than the arrival of complaint-driven comedies that have no love for millennials, kale and man-buns. “Superior Donuts” slides very easily into that category with an air of confidence that is not backed up by its warmed-over jokes or by the stale assumptions that it peddles.
The problem starts with the premise: Jermaine Fowler plays Franco, an aspiring artist who goes to work at a doughnut shop owned by the grumpy Arthur (Judd Hirsch) in a gentrifying Chicago neighborhood. Franco’s ideas about how to market the shop are greeted with hostility by Arthur, and the first three episodes revolve around Franco’s unceasing efforts to drum up business for Superior Donuts while also keeping the shop owner safe from crime, which remains a problem in the neighborhood. Why the energetic Franco would expend this much effort for a sour man who is financially solvent and content to grumble, sell coffee and patronize everyone around him is never explained satisfactorily.
It’s also strange to see an African-American man with fewer resources continually offer help to an older white man who goes out of his way to mock the younger man’s ideas, but then a lot of the elements of “Superior Donuts” that touch on race are tin-eared, if not tiresome. At one point, Franco makes a joke about trusting a Chicago police officer enough to turn his back on her, and that joke is given about the same amount of weight as a jab about young people being addicted to Frappuccinos. This glibness about a very real problem — on a program set in a city that has gone through extreme turmoil over this complex and incendiary issue — is jarring, as is the fact that the show’s Arab-American character, the owner of the business next door, is constantly bringing up his heritage as an Iraqi. It’s not that his background shouldn’t be mentioned; part of the goal of “Superior Donuts” is to show the neighborhood as a typical urban melting pot. But the character’s culture comes up multiple times in every episode, and at a certain point, it begins to feel as though the show views Fawz (Maz Jobrani) as not just a neighbor but as the Other.
A bigger problem for “Superior Donuts” is that its humor feels as tired as Arthur appears to be. The comedy is based on a play by the talented writer and actor Tracy Letts, but at times, the watered-down “Donuts” feels as though it was dredged up from a comedy vault that closed decades ago. Arthur refers to Franco’s favorite music as “hippity-hoppity,” and everyone who is not in Arthur’s age bracket is sardonically referred to as a “hipster” or a “pretentious millennial.” That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if the gibes about lattes and Whole Foods didn’t feel out of date as of a decade ago.
The clash of cultures, incomes and worldviews in a gentrifying neighborhood is certainly a fine premise for a show, and Netflix’s revival of “One Day at a Time” has proved that, executed with fresh ideas, thoughtfully informed points of view and vital energy, it can be the basis for a very entertaining multi-camera comedy. But the blandness of “Superior Donuts,” and the repetitive nature of its core dynamic, in which Arthur is against everything and continually rejects help, blunts the humor of the comedy. The ensemble, though skilled, is rarely given the kind of incisive or inspired material that would help “Superior Donuts” rise above its formulaic foundation.
Buried somewhere in this show is an interesting story about change: On one level, “Superior Donuts” is about how those who are locked in their old patterns have a hard time evolving and how young people can shake things up in fruitful ways. But that idea is not the bulk of what’s on screen: It is merely a glaze on an otherwise flavorless mess.