Getting old sucks, and FOX’s new comedy The Cool Kids draws most of its humor from that little observational nugget. It’s an important one, too, making this the rare comedy that doesn’t relegate those 60 and older to the sidelines to play the parents or grandparents of younger characters with spacious apartments and cool-sounding jobs. It’s also not focused on a suburban family and the seemingly odd but actually adorable way in which they make dysfunction functional. Instead, The Cool Kids is about what happens to those characters after all that. Many, many years after. And that makes for a charming new comedy about the misconceptions and truths of getting old.
The series takes place in a retirement home and centers on three seniors, Hank (David Alan Grier), Charlie (Martin Mull), and Sid (Leslie Jordan), who find their group diminished by one — their friend Jerry recently passed away — only to have the void quickly filled by sharp-witted newcomer Margaret, played by Vicki Lawrence. Margaret isn’t too interested in Hank, Charlie, and Sid’s way of doing things, or their perceived status among the other retirees (of which M.A.S.H. great Jamie Farr is one). Her arrival and determination to sit wherever she wants — even if it's with “the cool kids” — vexes Hank, who, despite a tough, opinionated exterior is actually still processing his complicated feelings over Jerry’s passing. It turns out he’s a little worried that one day he too will be remembered with only a brief announcement over a PA system and a lowly cheese plate for people whose digestive systems might not take to all that dairy.
Co-created by It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia star Charlie Day and Paul Fruchbom (YouTube Premium’s Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television), The Cool Kids walks a fine line between finding humor in having more of your life behind you than in front of you, and being outright morbid. And, to its credit, the series tackles this head-on with a surprisingly funny, well-paced premiere that makes what so many sitcoms struggle with look easy: mix exposition with moments of actual humor, though there are questions as to what exactly is the true source of the humor. Make no mistake, The Cool Kids is funny. Or rather, these characters are funny. Watching, it can be a little difficult to discern what’s actually making you laugh; if the joke about being pulled over by cops while driving an inadvertently stolen car and then preparing to pretend to have dementia is really what’s funny, or if its just that Grier, Mull, Lawrence, and Jordan could read an encyclopedia aloud and make most people watching crack up.
The distinction between performer and material becomes less obvious over time, as the three episodes made available to critics showed a perceptible progression of the humor in the scripts as opposed to just the inherent funniness of the show’s cast. Still, to the credit of Day and Fruchbom, they manage to craft a mostly funny premiere in which the specter of death looms large without resorting to strictly macabre jokes. Instead, the pilot focuses on the friendship between the three men and their soon-to-be fourth, who might just provide the spark they need to get over Jerry’s passing.
That the show is more about friendship than it is about getting older and the characters feeling as though their best days are behind them, makes The Cool Kids’ interest in a retirement home’s social hierarchies and its residents’ inclination toward forming cliques a little funnier. The parallels between high school and that of senior living — the restrictions on freedom, the resentment toward figures of authority, etc. — are obvious, especially Hank’s wish to throw a party in Jerry’s honor, which requires them to try and purchase beer with a stolen credit card (Jerry’s credit card).
While that sort of joke has its limits, The Cool Kids is mostly confident enough to just sit back and let its cast be as funny as possible. Grier, in particular, excels at playing a more cantankerous, slightly boisterous version of his character in The Charmichael Show, while Mull plays that old guy who has seemingly lived a million lives in a single lifetime. Charlie’s stories become a solid running gag throughout the pilot and later on in the series, as his supply of personal anecdotes for every occasion (plausible or not) appears to be endless. Jordan continues to be his scene-stealing self by essentially porting his Beverly Leslie character from Will & Grace over to this show. Meanwhile, Lawrence, who was last seen on NBC’s sadly canceled Great News, gets the much larger role she deserves and quickly becomes a key part of the show’s successful formula.
It’s a little worrisome that The Cool Kids has been dropped on the wasteland that is Friday nights on FOX. With any luck the show will outshine the network’s other new (or revived) offerings and either find a new place on the fall schedule or find its audience with those watching on demand or via Hulu.
The Cool Kids continues next Friday with ‘The Cool Kids Rig an Election’ @8:30pm on FOX.