The most interesting thing about the new comedy “Welcome to Flatch” just might be the way in which Fox is rolling it out. While the pilot episode will premiere March 17 on the broadcast network before airing weekly, the first seven (7!) episodes will also be available to stream on FoxNow and Hulu earlier that same day, thus giving curious viewers a chance to marathon half the season well before those who keep tuning in the traditional way.
It might seem an odd approach at first glance, but the vast majority of comedies have always needed a few episodes to figure out the particular rhythms of their dialogue and cast chemistry — something “Welcome to Flatch” director Paul Feig knows well enough, having come in to “The Office” at the beginning of Season 2, right as the eventual smash hit was really beginning to gel. So if Fox wants to find a new way to get its audience invested enough in a show to stick around for weekly episodes at a time when attention spans seem to be at an all-time low, giving them an advance look isn’t the worst idea. (It might’ve even been a great idea for something like Fox’s underrated and now canceled drama “The Big Leap,” but I digress.) Whether or not this tactic might work for “Welcome to Flatch” itself, though, is a trickier question.
From Feig and writer Jenny Bicks (“Sex and the City,” “The Greatest Showman”), and based on the UK series “This Country,” the show adopts a familiar enough mockumentary format to introduce a cast of eccentric characters, this time for the tiny fictional town of Flatch, Ohio (population 1,526). The documentarians are never introduced, though their purpose is through title cards before each episode: “Recent studies show that Americans long for a simple life in small towns. To explore these communities, Fox sent a documentary crew to spend time with the citizens of Flatch.” It’s a simple setup, but also very silly; no one ever needed such a justification on “Parks and Recreation” for following the residents of Pawnee, Indiana, for just one example. Bicks herself even explored similar small-town territory in her two-season-long ABC romantic comedy, “Men in Trees.” And yet, the show seems both aware enough of the possible tropes, and also willing enough to play into some tired enough ones that their punchlines barely register.
This inherent clash could resolve itself after a couple episodes of requisite throat clearing, but rather than proving to its audience that sticking around for a bit will pay off, “Welcome to Flatch” has trouble reconciling the half of itself that works with the half that’s stuck trying to figure out the show’s tone.
The series mostly follows Kelly (Holmes) and “Shrub” (Sam Straley), cousins who spend most of their spare time finding inventive new ways to waste time. Surrounding them are Nadine (Taylor Ortega), Kelly’s smug high school nemesis, local legend “Big Mandy” Matthews (Krystal Smith), and eager Mickey (Justin Linville), who wants nothing more than to be Shrub’s best friend, for some reason. The only people who aren’t Flatch locals are pastor Joe (Seann William Scott) and newspaper editor Cheryl (Aya Cash), who came to the town as a couple but broke up shortly before the show begins.
There’s plenty of comic potential here, but the writing struggles to home in on it, instead relying on its actors to elevate the material. This is a problem when it comes to those who continue to feel miscast even a few episodes in. Scott (“American Pie”) and Cash (“You’re the Worst”) have more than proven their abilities to sell a joke on other projects, and are probably the most immediately recognizable faces on “Welcome to Flatch” overall, but they both have trouble shading in these characters beyond thick midwestern accents and bemused smiles. (In fact, Scott’s part was played by an older actor on the British series, and it’s hard not to think that might’ve worked better on this one, as well.) The opposite holds true for relative newcomers Holmes and Smith, whose compelling performances make Kelly and Big Mandy feel like complete people even when the scripts don’t. Holmes in particular proves the series’ immediate standout, bringing a loose energy to her punchier scenes as well as a lowkey sadness to those that underline how much Kelly craves not just attention, but basic validation, from those who’ve never cared.
Given the shakiness of the first couple episodes, it’s smart of Fox to offer another way for potential fans to latch on to “Welcome to Flatch.” The problem with that strategy, however, is that there might not be much more waiting beyond. Until the show clarifies its characters, drive, and tone — not to mention sharpens the jokes inspired by all the above — it might have trouble keeping viewers no matter how they tune in.
“Welcome to Flatch” premieres Thursday, Mar. 17 at 9:30 pm on Fox, and with seven episodes available to stream on FoxNow and Hulu.