In an early episode of ABC’s verbosely titled new family sitcom, How to Live with Your Parents (For the Rest of Your Life), Polly (Sarah Chalke) claims that her parents’ habit of prioritizing their own needs left her with a black hole in her heart. Polly’s mother, Elaine (Elizabeth Perkins), a theatrical kook whose mission is to make life more interesting for everyone around her regardless of the collateral damage, quips, “I wish my black hole was as intriguing as yours.” But neither Polly nor the series is very intriguing. Even the process of moving back in with one’s parents, the ostensible premise of the series, becomes a non-issue for Polly in the face of her plucky sense of humor. She bemoans the fact that she works at a food market after having studied environmental science, proclaiming, “I’m not a failure, I’m trendy,” with all the requisite sarcasm, but somehow avoids the looks of pity and concern that most people in her situation would endure.
Comedy ought to be the perfect medium in which to expose society’s hypocritical shaming of a trend that’s considered a sign of the times, but How to Live with Your Parents isn’t interested in satire. Instead, most of the episodes revolve around trite rom-com storylines in which the divorced Polly tries to get hitched with suitors so bland they require convenient nicknames like “Jewish Superman” in order to be remotely distinguishable to viewers. The series appropriates a contemporary socioeconomic trend to little effect, since its most modern aspect is the vocal fry used to pepper Polly’s narration with “Gee, aren’t my parents wacky?” bemusement. This is the kind of deeply old-fashioned sitcom in which characters lean diagonally into open doorways in order to say their lines.
The cast deserves praise for finding small moments of comedy in a glance or gesture even amid the show’s frantically paced dialogue. Perkins in particular steals the show by playing Elaine as a natural performer in her own right, someone whose eager willingness to be the butt of every joke easily redeems her rampant narcissism. Whatever that vaguely ascribed black hole may be, Elaine has it in spades, and it makes for great comedy. The episode “How to Live with the Academy Awards Party,” in which Polly’s parents host an over-the-top viewing party complete with giant Oscar-statue replicas that have Elaine and Max’s heads pasted on them, demonstrates what the series might have been had showrunner Claudia Lonow relied more heavily on the older couple’s antics. When Max asks Elaine whose life she would choose to save should a gunman enter the home and threaten to kill either him or Elaine’s brother, she scoffs, “What kind of gunman is this? What, he comes into people’s homes and forces them to make difficult emotional choices?” And a scene in which Max accuses Elaine of always taking her brother’s side in an argument isn’t so much about who’s right as it is a competition to see who can make a more absurdly melodramatic case.
While Max and Elaine can always be counted on to take sides, the same can’t be said for the show’s other characters. Polly gets along relatively well with her ex-husband, easily resolves a conflict with a prospective beau to whom she lied about everything from her job to her living situation, and rushes in via voiceover to deliver a cheerful take on each episode’s ending. In spite of its title, How to Live with Your Parents is less about living with one’s parents than it is about the specific concerns of multigenerational families. The single main source of anxiety for Polly is her daughter, Natalie (Rachel Eggleston), and her character comes into sharper relief when she obsesses over how a young child might respond to living in the same house with two wildly different sets of parental figures. During one mother-to-mother bonding session, Polly delivers a surprisingly plaintive monologue about the myriad parenting choices she makes every day and how she won’t know which one was wrong until her daughter grows up and blames her. Elaine quips, “Not even then.” The good news is that with any luck, Natalie might develop a black hole worthy of an edgier, more distinctive sitcom.