September 25, 2013

PREMIERING TONIGHT: THE SKED Pilot Review – ABC’s “Back In the Game”


Read All Our Fall Pilot Reports here and Midseason Pilot Reports here.

BACK IN THE GAME:  Wednesday 8:30PM on ABC  – Worth A Look

Unlike most of its characters, BACK IN THE GAME keeps its pitches pretty much in the strike zone, which in this case is a combination of The Bad News Bears and the Clint Eastwood/Amy Adams movie Trouble With the Curve.  The show, by Mark and Robb Cullen (they may be remembered for their squirrelly little FX comedy Lucky, from the days before “FX comedy” was a cool thing to be) redeems its far from original premise with some subversive wit and accomplished performances.  (Not incidentally, the pilot is directed by the team of John Requa and Glenn Ficarra, who were behind the camera on the similarly surprising Crazy, Stupid Love.)

Terry Gannon Jr (Maggie Lawson) finds herself in the bind shared by so many characters on so many sitcoms:  out of work and money after a divorce, she has to move in with her dreaded father, Terry Sr (James Caan), who goes by the nickname Cannon.  The Cannon was a ballplayer and then a second-rate coach when Terry was a child, and she’s never forgiven him for his feckless parenting.  He’s no better as a grandpa–when young Danny (Griffin Gluck) is bullied by David Slimbaugh (Cooper Roth) at school, Cannon’s advice is to flick a lit cigarette into the pre-teen’s eye.  Terry played ball herself in college–until she got pregnant and lost her scholarship–but Danny is hopeless at the sport, and it need hardly be said that not only is bully David a team star, but his father, the carefully-named Dick (Ben Koldyke), is their obnoxious, sexist coach.  When Danny and his fellow misfits are excluded from the team, Terry, with the backing of conveniently wealthy new friend Gigi (Lenora Crichlow), sets up one of her own, featuring not only Danny, but players who are variously overweight, creepy identical twins, singing and dancing (that’s Gigi’s son) and so on, with Terry as coach and, of course, Cannon as crotchety consultant.

Nothing that happens in Back In the Game is unexpected, but the pilot hits the right understated, slightly off-kilter tone.  When it turns out, as it must, that Cannon was a less uncaring father than Terry always thought he’d been, the moment is played without anyone making a speech about it, and the pilot’s big aspirational moments, when Danny takes a stand against David and then when Terry has to face Dick Slimbaugh on the field for the chance to coach, don’t take the obvious bounces.  The relationship between Terry and her father is uncomfortable and borderline hostile, but it’s not shrill like the ones in How To Live With Your Parents (For the Rest Of Your Life) and Family Tools, to name two recent bad examples.

The casting helps, too.  Lawson has been a bright, good-sport presence amid the boys’ club jokery of Psych, and Crichlow is well-remembered as the ghost from the original British cast of Being Human, while Caan (who worked with the Cullens on Las Vegas), unlike a lot of veterans making their first forays into sitcom, is smart enough not to push too hard.  It’s also a promising sign that there’s no ready-made romantic interest for Terry in the regular cast, so the show intends to wait a while before going down that familiar road.

Back In the Game is being given every chance to succeed, with the hammock slot between The Middle and Modern Family on Wednesday nights.  It won’t be expected to win its slot (The Middle is typically in the mix with Survivor and X Factor at 8PM), and will be considered a success if it can hold its lead-in better than The Neighbors did last fall.  The show may not hit many home runs, but it should earn its place in the network’s line-up.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."