Monday, February 29, 2016

5 Reasons You Should Be Watching 'Life in Pieces'

A few months ago, I was perusing my cable network's On Demand selection. As I scrolled through the CBS shows that were available to watch (intent on scrolling through for Scorpion or Supergirl), I paused as I nearly skipped over Life in Pieces. It was a show that I knew very little about. So little, in fact, that I actually Googled the title in order to read the show's synopsis before deciding to watch the first episode of the show that was available. I went in with low expectations which, honestly, is how I've gone into this television season. In what seems to be a pretty thin year in terms of new series, the ones I have found that I have enjoyed most are — ironically — shows I was confident I wouldn't watch.

Life in Pieces is a show akin to The Crazy Ones or Enlisted in the fact that not nearly enough people watch it or are talking about it. I tuned in because of the cast, but I stayed (and continue to watch each week) because I think this show is one of the most consistently hilarious and sorely underrated on television. It's a sitcom told in four short stories. Most of the time, these stories can stand on their own, but sometimes they intersect in rather hilarious and subtle ways. Life in Pieces is not just funny, but it is also heartwarming and endearing in a way that so few comedies, especially family-centric ones, are these days. In case you need further convincing, here are five of the best reasons to watch Life in Pieces.

5. The show’s structure is perfect for people who want short, simple stories.

The way that Life in Pieces is structured is through the telling of four different short stories, or "acts." A vast majority of the time, one or more of the plots from an episode's story will cross over with another story within the episode. For example, in "Tattoo Valentine Guitar Pregnant" (by the way, there is one word chosen to define each story and that is how the titles are selected), we see the Valentine's Day story between Matt (Thomas Sadoski) and Colleen (Angelique Cabral) crossing over with the story between Tim (Dan Bakkedahl) and Heather (Betsy Brandt). Even though most of the show is structured in such a way that the plots within are standalone, contained mini-arcs, Life in Pieces does a great job of reminding us that the show itself doesn't exist in a vacuum. Often, characters and plot threads from one miniature story dangle into the next, and it never feels forced or trite. And, additionally, with our attention spans shortening by the year, Life in Pieces is a perfect show to engage with; the stories are quick and transition easily from one to the next, allowing for the optimal level of investment. 

If you're looking for a unique story structure on television, this CBS hit is just what you need to fill a void you didn't even know was lacking. It's smart, inventive, and conducive not only to hilarious storytelling, but character growth. It might seem contradictory to say that a show structured in four mini-arcs (each generally focusing on a different faction of the family) would be a source of character development. But it is. It's so rewarding and great to see the characters change and develop, not only within their plot arcs, but other ones in the episode as well.

4. It’s a show about finding hilarity in reality.

I love big, weird, absurd comedies. But I also love really normal, really sweet, really silly comedies that manage to find the hilarious in the mundane. Shows grounded in reality and things like family dynamics are some of my absolute favorites. And the reasoning is pretty simple: I love being able to picture my life or the life of someone I know within a sitcom. Life in Pieces is a show told in four mini-arcs each week, and each story — for the most part — is about something completely and utterly normal.

One week, Jen (Zoe Lister-Jones) realizes that her husband Greg (Colin Hanks) would rather fall asleep on the comfy couch they own than sleep in bed with her. In another story, Heather punishes her little daughter Sophia (Giselle Eisenberg) after she hears her swearing. There are stories about caroling and Thanksgiving dinners; about spin classes and competing garage sales and hiring nannies and figuring out what to do after high school. In one episode, Tim shows his daughter Samantha (Holly J. Barrett) and her friends — while at a sleepover in his home — Alien, terrifying the girls and causing outrage among the guests' parents. 

Life in Pieces is a show all about life — its ups, downs, and the things that happen all around us that are so funny, we might be missing them.


3. The slapstick shenanigans allow the emotional moments to be that much better.

This single-camera comedy is fast-paced, witty, and silly — main reasons why I love it so much. But what I truly love about comedies like Life in Pieces is the fact that the premise of the show makes it all the more delightful and impactful whenever there are serious moments. There haven't been a lot of gut-punch or intensely sad moments in this show's short run (thus far). But the ones that have aired have really reminded me that the writers are not just talented at crafting jokes. They use the premise of the show in order to carefully construct characters whose lives we invest in. So we care about Matt and Colleen's relationship. We care about how John (James Brolin) tells Colleen that his Army friends are all dead and gone, and he misses them.

We form emotional connections with these people and with their family unit. I think that the emphasis on the family structure is really one of the things that allows Life in Pieces to explore more emotional topics without them becoming too heavy-handed or forced. Nothing about the significant moments — the confessions of love, the break-ups, the grief, the pain — in this show feels unearned. The show is extremely good at crafting short stories that cause us to engage and connect, while also leaving us with a feeling of attachment to the characters. What more could you possibly hope for?


2. The cast itself is hilarious, including all of the kids.

There is no doubt that this cast is immensely talented. There is not a weak link in the show, and with the structure of Life in Pieces, all of the characters have the chance to interact with and have stories with the other characters. Even though a lot of the stories will focus on one "family unit" per story — whether Tim/Heather and their kids, Jen/Greg and their infant daughter, Matt/Colleen, or John/Joan (Dianne Wiest) — everyone gets the chance to interact with characters outside of their particular unit. Take, for example, an episode where the men of the family units went camping together, or the episode where Matt becomes Sophia's soccer coach. One of the reasons that this show works is because its story structure is so unique. But Life In Pieces doesn't let its unique premise serve as a roadblock. Instead of using the four separate storylines to... well, for lack of a better word, "separate" the characters, it actually uses this structure to bring them together.

There aren't a whole lot of scenes in which the entire cast is together, but the show has really discovered where its actors excel and places them with other actors in the cast who can play off those particular abilities. Stories between Jen and the other women work so well because Zoe Lister-Jones' comedic strength is in her impeccable dry wit. The young and precocious Giselle Eisenberg can hold her own among the adults. Her storylines are some of my favorite, because she has the sass and comedic delivery of someone three times her age. All of the kids, really, have their own comedic talents — Holly J. Barrett plays the exasperated teenager to perfection, and Niall Cunningham's Tyler is the perfect blend of awkward and self-aware. He is able to hold his own in scenes with guest star Josh Groban, which is impressive.

Truly everyone in the cast has their own blend of unique humor, whether self-deprecating, dry, over-the-top, or more physical (Dan Bakkendahl, Thomas Sadoski, and Colin Hanks are great at this) in nature, there is no doubt that the cast of Life in Pieces just clicks.

1. It’s the family-centric ensemble comedy we’ve been waiting for.

There are not many family comedies left on television these days. As I was trying to think of some that aren't Modern Family, I had to pause and really think. The vast majority of shows I watch feature an element of "family" — but that family is not literal; it's figurative. You have the loft in New Girl, the friends in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the co-workers in Younger, the neighbors in The Big Bang Theory, etc. But what makes Life in Pieces so special is that is a show about a family that could very well be any of ours. Moreover, this CBS show is a true ensemble comedy. Though Jane the Virgin is a family-unit centered show, Jane will always be the primary focus. The thing about ensembles these days is that not many of them really ARE ensembles. There is still nearly always a lead character with whom we associate the title of "protagonist." Everyone else, generally, plays a supporting role to this hero or heroine.

But not this show. Though there are a patriarch and matriarch of the family (much like there was in Parenthood), this show has no main character. No one family is elevated more than another, and the characters are all given their own stories and screentime. The focus on four miniature stories is what really elevates this idea of an ensemble. Sometimes one character will not be in one or more of the stories in an episode, and that's okay. The show functions so well within its context that there is no need for the writers to show more favor to one character or family unit over another.

I love this about Life in Pieces. I really do. The ability of the writers to not only write really concise and good short stories and somehow string them together to form cohesive episodes is amazing to me. Add in the fact that they manage to cultivate humor and heart in every episode, and you can see why this has quickly become a go-to feel-good comedy for me this year.

Check out Life in Pieces if you haven't yet! Catch up on the season, and watch new episodes on CBS Thursday nights at 8:30 PM, right after The Big Bang Theory!

1 comment:

  1. I'm glad to see someone giving Life in Pieces the respect it deserves. It's a great show that knows how to be sentimental without being sappy while providing excellent moments of humor and a family of characters I've come to enjoy watching. I hope it doesn't get cancelled. At most, I see the show lasting for three seasons.