The long-tail effect of “This Is Us” — the only network drama launch in recent memory to achieve its particular alchemical blend of popular and critical acclaim along with awards attention — remains very much in effect, as evidenced by “Council of Dads.” This new NBC drama would seem to take its network-mate as a template, incorporating, through shifts through time, a foundational family trauma that gives way to a clan whose structure’s unconventionality is, perhaps its strength.
Which means that “Council of Dads” — in which the widow and children of a recently deceased pillar of his community are attended to by a council of dads — has an unshakable solidity to its foundation. At its core, the family story here works, and mysteries seeded through time are intriguing enough to make staying tuned seem like an appealing proposition. Where “Council of Dads” falters is when it ventures too far onto the outer branches of its premise: The council itself, as an entity, strains plausibility in a way that feels less fantasy-pleasant than, at times, silly. If the show achieves a tighter level of focus deeper into its first season, it may go from “promising” to something more.
Sarah Wayne Callies, for instance, is very strong as the widow of a charismatic and only-occasionally-feckless gent (played, in flashback, by Tom Everett Scott); it’s through her performance that you get a sense of what her whole family lost when its patriarch died, and what problems were papered over in his life. The couple’s three children, though occasionally verging on the saccharine, tend toward similar complication, with each having a very clear internal conflict that buoys the show’s early going.
Which makes the “council of dads” — the departed’s best friend (Clive Standen), his A.A. sponsee (Michael O’Neill), and his physician (J. August Richards) — feel like a bit of embroidery the show doesn’t need. By the second episode, Callies’ character is already questioning the efficacy of the council, and she hardly seems wrong. The rules here (that the three men will serve as surrogate husbands and parents for a calendar year, a promise extracted by Scott’s dying character that feels, even given the circumstances, a bit steep) seem to exist to perpetuate conflict and drama, not to help the family. And while conflict and drama is generally the object of the game, it’s easy to tell when it’s been ginned up contra reason in order simply to keep to story rolling.
There’s a fascinating enough dynamic among the grieving family — with an elder daughter (Michele Weaver) struggling to understand her late father’s substance issues, a younger daughter (Thalia Tran) looking deeper into her adoption story, and a little son (Blue Chapman) who is coming into consciousness of prejudice against trans kids like him — to make a show that works. And some of the dynamic between the family and the council, like Callies’ tough and spiky interactions with Standen, work, too, at least in theory. But drilling down, their conflicts are rooted in an agreement that wouldn’t be enforceable, because it wouldn’t credibly have been made.
The show, to its credit, seems to bend around the big stumbling block at its center. And it’s something to hope for that “Council of Dads” develops its relationships even more deeply once it gets past the early phase of stating, and endlessly restating, the rules for a council that might do better — as family helpmates and as characters in watchable drama — were it to disband.
With: Sarah Wayne Callies, Clive Standen, Tom Everett Scott, J. August Richards, Blue Chapman, Emjay Anthony, Michele Weaver, Thalia Tran, Steven Silver and Michael O’Neill