I’m not sure I would call Superior Donuts a good TV show just yet. I’m not even sure I’d recommend watching the first handful of episodes of the new CBS new sitcom, unless you’re interested in TV shows that “might become good someday.”
But it’s a useful example of when it’s worth sticking with a troubled show that has promising elements, and when it’s not worth the trouble.
All TV critics have to read their tea leaves when judging new shows, and that’s especially true with comedies, which are more likely to improve as casts grow more comfortable with each other and writers start to learn their actors’ strengths. And my reading of the Superior Donuts tea leaves suggests it could get very good in the future, even though it’s not there yet.
For one thing, it’s got a great cast, led by Judd Hirsch (of Taxi fame) and Jermaine Fowler (an energetic newcomer), but also featuring experienced vets like Katey Sagal (Married with Children) and David Koechner (bit parts in so many comedies) in smaller parts. It’s also got a good creative team, headed up by writers Bob Daily, Neil Goldman, and Garrett Donovan (the lattermost two have worked on both Scrubs and Community). And it’s based on a play by Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Letts, of all people. But none of that is why I’m cautiously optimistic about this show.
The real reason I’m cautiously optimistic is that Superior Donuts succeeds in an area where so many comedies fail: It’s actually about something.
Superior Donuts is about the rise of gentrification in America
Whenever I say a TV comedy has to be about something, many people inevitably think I mean something political — in the way that All in the Family was about how families often don’t see eye-to-eye when it comes to politics. But Cheers was about letting go of your dreams, and Community was about learning to understand people with different views and backgrounds, and both shows were great. Even Seinfeld, famously said to be about “nothing,” was about manners and politeness (or lack thereof). A comedy doesn’t need to have a political theme to succeed; it just needs a theme.
And Superior Donuts has a good one. At its center is Arthur (Hirsch), the elderly owner of the titular donut shop, who’s watching his gentrifying Chicago neighborhood change before his very eyes. The store is struggling, which is why Arthur brings in Franco (Fowler) to help him turn things around. All the while, a colorful group of neighborhood folks pop in and out to offer their take on what’s happening.
The most important aspect of Superior Donuts’ central idea — that a changing neighborhood can feel threatening to people who’ve always known it to be a certain way — is the way it allows the show to tell different kinds of jokes. It can tell culture clash jokes. It can tell jokes about old people being set in their ways. It can tell jokes about ridiculous hipsters. And so on and so on. The instant Superior Donuts reveals its gentrification theme, it gains access to lots of extra territory for humor.
Are its jokes terrific? Not just yet. Even the studio audience sometimes chuckles only halfheartedly. I laughed maybe twice over the course of the show’s first three episodes. But it’s heartening to see just how quickly the writers dive into trying to make different jokes land, and how they’re always trying to explore new facets of their central idea. In the early going of any given comedy series, “great jokes” can take a back seat to figuring out just what a show is and how its characters function. You can always hire writers who specialize in great gags in the future.
But Superior Donuts’ theme also allows for a sort of stealth relevance I’m not sure CBS knew the show had when the network bought it last spring. The question of what America looks like and how people respond as the country’s population shifts from being mostly white to being far more diverse is driving most of our big political discussions and arguments right now — and Superior Donuts is tapped into it from the start.
Many critics have highlighted the way Superior Donuts talks and jokes about current news topics, covering everything from the political climate to police violence. But those jokes could feel opportunistic without a good central hub. Since Superior Donuts has one, they feel less like an attempt to push buttons and more like the sorts of conversations happening right now, in corner stores around the country, where nobody’s quite sure what will happen next.
Superior Donuts debuts Thursday, February 2 at 8:30 pm Eastern on CBS, before moving to its regular timeslot of Mondays at 9 pm Eastern on Monday, February 6.