Watching 14-year-old Chad (Nasim Pedrad) try so hard to be cool that he devolves into a sputtering mess can be, to say the least, awkward. Anyone who’s lived through puberty knows the pain of wanting to be “normal” at the same time everything feels anything but. “Chad” picks up with its title character — who changed his name to something more American friendly from his Persian birth name of Fereydoon — on his first fraught day of high school. As played by “Saturday Night Live” alum Pedrad, Chad is the living embodiment of that adolescent desperation. And yet, for all the teen shows we’ve had over the years, Chad’s closest onscreen analogue is probably “The Office’s” Michael Scott: a live wire of angst, hormones and try-hard intensity who has no idea how to stay still or be chill despite his very best efforts.
Pedrad, who acts as creator, star, executive producer and showrunner, first wrote the pilot for “Chad” in 2015, with versions of the show traveling from network to network before finally landing at TBS. (This might account for the fact that while the world around Chad is more recognizably set in 2021, Chad as a character feels more unmoored from time and place who could just as easily be living during Pedrad’s adolescent era as in the present day.) As the show premieres in 2021, though, “Chad” nevertheless owes a debt to “Pen15” for somewhat normalizing its high-concept setup. Hulu’s middle school comedy also stars two adult women — co-creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle — as adolescent versions of themselves, acting against younger actors playing characters much closer to their age.
Pedrad and “Chad” do the same. Jake Ryan, of Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade,” portrays Chad’s best friend with scene-stealing pathos; Thomas Barbusca, who’s already carved out a presence for himself as a go-to teen bully, plays Chad’s popular idol Reid; Ella Mika is Chad’s more mature younger sister; and Alexa Loo takes on Denise, Peter’s high-achieving friend who tolerates Chad more than she likes him.
Unlike “Pen15,” though, Pedrad gives herself the extra layer of absurdity by filtering her experiences as a Persian American in America by playing the character as a teen boy, allowing her to get even looser with the show’s inherent surrealism. While the show features some sporadic moments of genuine growth and connection, Chad himself mostly operates in extremes. That his most defining characteristic throughout the first season’s eight episodes is “insecure” can make him hard to watch. It might be realistic that any lessons Chad learns in one episode don’t necessarily make it in tact to the next, but it can also make him a frustrating protagonist to follow — especially because, as Peter tells him in their one and only fight, he operates mostly as an island unto himself.
Where “Chad” really makes a name for itself is, somewhat ironically, when it embraces the culture that Fereydoon himself does not. As evidenced by him choosing the most blandly American name he could think of, Chad is constantly rejecting his Persian roots, but mostly because they make him stand out rather than because of any specific complaints. His mother (Saba Homayoon, admirably playing the straight woman) mostly understands this, even if it bruises her a little. His uncle Hamid (Paul Chahidi), however, is much more easily devastated when Chad dismisses his family history out of hand; Chahidi is so good at playing Hamid’s quirkiness against his quiet sadness that it’s impossible not to feel for him.
It’s no coincidence that the best episode of “Chad” is the one that centers on Chad’s relationship with Hamid. Chad is initially horrified to be standing in line for the new Air Jordans with Hamid, who brought his own giant thermos of tea. As the day wears on, though, Hamid ends up introducing Chad to all his Persian friends, who are so thrilled to meet Chad that the kid, constantly trying to be enough for everyone, can’t help but be flattered by their attention. Their ensuing adventure shows Chad that being Persian can be just as cool as anything else, and (finally!) lets him get a win — for a few minutes, anyway. Then it’s right back to Chad being the lowest rung on the high school ladder.
By that point, it’s downright exhausting to watch Chad trip over himself over and over again. Should “Chad” get a second season, it would be more interesting to see what he does with even an ounce more confidence, even if it doesn’t make for as many obvious punchlines.
“Chad” premieres Tuesday, April 6 at 10:30 p.m. on TBS.