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'Superior Donuts' has sweet performances but is full of holes

'Superior Donuts' has sweet performances but is full of holes
David Koechner as Tush, left, Judd Hirsch as Arthur and Jermaine Fowler as Franco in "Superior Donuts." (Monty Brinton / CBS)

"Superior Donuts" doesn't exactly scream CBS, at least on paper.

For starters, the sitcom, premiering Thursday, is based on a play by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Tracy Letts —  decidedly highbrow source material for a proudly mainstream network where James Patterson adaptations are generally about as literary as it gets.

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Then there's the subject matter.  Arthur Przybyszewski (Judd Hirsch) is the owner of a proudly old-fashioned doughnut shop in Chicago's up-and-coming Uptown neighborhood, where crime is still a problem but yuppies and Starbucks are beginning to take over. Enter Franco Wicks (Jermaine Fowler), an enterprising young black man who wants to help Arthur modernize the shop and reach a hipper clientele.

Created by sitcom veterans Bob Daily, Garrett Donovan and Neil Goldman, "Superior Donuts"  tackles thorny issues of gentrification, racial tension and corrupt law enforcement. There are jokes about body cameras and the dangers of turning one's back on a Chicago police officer. Its very setting, a city portrayed just days ago as a "carnage"-ridden hellscape by our president, makes it something of a provocation.

This qualifies as edgy, relevant material, especially on CBS. As its broadcast competitors have made aggressive, and generally well-received, efforts at more inclusive programming in recent seasons (think "black-ish," "Empire" and "Fresh Off the Boat"), the country's most-watched network has generally stuck with what works. This fall, the network found itself defending a lineup consisting of six new shows featuring white male protagonists.

To its credit, CBS seems to have taken the criticism to heart.  "Superior Donuts" is one of two shows debuting on Thursday with black co-leads. (The other is "Training Day," an adaptation of the 2001 Denzel Washington-Ethan Hawke movie.) Later this month comes "Doubt," co-starring Laverne Cox, a transgender African American actress.

But the surprising — and ultimately disappointing — thing about "Superior Donuts" is just how easily it fits in at CBS.

Despite the veneer of topicality, it is essentially just another multi-camera workplace sitcom featuring the usual assortment of gently eccentric supporting characters. The regulars at Superior Donuts include Maya (Anna Baryshnikov), a pretty blond grad student who frequents the store because of its lack of Wi-Fi (better for concentrating on her dissertation); Fawz (Maz Jobrani), an Iraqi immigrant and wannabe real estate tycoon who runs the dry-cleaning place next door; and Tush (David Koechner), the Norm Peterson of the show who uses the shop as his office.

Inevitably, given the setting, there's also pair of cops who stop by daily, one a hardened veteran (Katey Sagal), the other a wide-eyed rookie, (Darien Sills-Evans).

The cast is generally  likable. Hirsch, the familiar star of "Taxi" and "Dear John," has a quiet, melancholy bearing that adds a note of complexity to his obligatory role as the Cranky but Big-Hearted Old Guy. Fowler plays Franco with an appealing exuberance and sweetness. Sagal is her usual tart self in a part that doesn't ask her to do much other than order coffee and look good in her police blues (no small feat, mind you).

But as with so many sitcoms, the protagonists of "Superior Donuts" don't yet feel like living, breathing humans who've spent decades on the planet acquiring experiences and points of view.  In the three episodes CBS made available for review, we learn little about Arthur except that he's a widower and a neighborhood old-timer. (In the play, he was a former '60s activist).

And we know even less about Franco, a local who's both wary of gentrification — embodied by a newly opened Starbucks across the street — but eager to woo incoming hipsters with his experimental Sriracha-glazed donuts. He's also willing to work for minimum wage with no benefits, which suggests he's probably faced challenges more daunting than mastering the perfect maple cream, but who knows? "Superior Donuts" doesn't bother with his backstory.

Though it dances around some hot-button issues, the show is strangely nonconfrontational, willing to toss out a few eyebrow-raising one-liners about trigger-happy police or mustard gas attacks (that one comes from Fawz) but unwilling to go so far as to suggest racial or economic injustice might actually touch the lives of its characters.

The most potentially incendiary material is delivered in a way that seems designed to make viewers comfortable rather than acknowledging painful truths. A scene in which a hoodie-wearing Franco is almost wrongfully arrested is resolved as efficiently as any other innocent sitcom mix-up. No one is portrayed as prejudiced, resentful or paranoid, not even fleetingly — a missed opportunity in a show where race is definitely a major theme.

If "Superior Donuts" wants to be in the conversation with sitcoms like "black-ish" — and presumably it does — it can't be so squeamish about the subjects it's addressing.

And for all its feints at relevance, the show can feel awfully stale. There are musty jokes about elaborate espresso drinks and donut-eating cops that could have been told in 1997, and the same curmudgeonly wisecracks about kale-smoothie drinking yuppies and social media-obsessed millennials you could find on a dozen other network sitcoms. Even the set looks suspiciously familiar, like the diner from "2 Broke Girls" or the restaurant in "Mom."

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On the one hand, you almost have to admire CBS' ability to CBS-ify anything it touches, no matter how incongruous the material might initially seem. But at the same time, "Superior Donuts" has the potential to be something special and groundbreaking. Instead, it's just another plain-glazed TV show — too sweet and empty in the middle.

'Superior Donuts'

Where: CBS

When: 8:30 p.m. Thursday

Rating: TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children with an advisory for coarse language)

Follow me @MeredithBlake

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