Much is made of television as a storytelling medium, but really we watch it for the people — the characters and the actors who play them. (Indeed, we’re apt to take a character’s side, and an actor’s, when we feel the writers have wronged them, or did you sleep through the last season of “Game of Thrones”?) Comedy, especially — episodic, network-style comedy, especially especially — is a matter of personalities rather than of premises.
Premises are like the first stages of a rocket: They get the payload into orbit, where characters will come into their unpredictable own over time, individuals indivisible from the people playing them, rather than just serving whatever pitch sold the show in the first place.
CBS has two new comedies premiering tonight. Both are good. But the most important thing there is to say about “Carol’s Second Act” is that it stars Patricia Heaton, late of “The Middle,” in a role that takes the energy of her character there and shapes it into something different and fresh. And the main thing to know about “The Unicorn” is that it brings Walton Goggins, from “Justified” and “Vice Principals” and “The Righteous Gemstones,” to network television and casts him as something rare for him, a normal, nice guy.
Whether or not the script preceded the casting, or was written to fit her, “Carol” is very definitely “Patricia Heaton’s new show.” (Creators Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins created the underappreciated “Trophy Wife” a few cycles back.) If you aren’t ready to turn up your nose at any multi-camera comedy created in this century — and really, kids, there is life in that form beyond “Friends” and “Seinfeld” — you’ll find a fine addition to the canon: a completely conventional, entirely satisfying sitcom that breaks absolutely no new ground even as it sets off its star to good advantage. (You can’t have all the ground be broken ground.)
Heaton’s television career is defined primarily by two long-running series: the multi-camera “Everybody Loves Raymond,” where she was the sensible (yet spiky) counterweight to her eccentric in-laws, and the single-camera “The Middle,” which ended a nine-year run in 2018, where she played the hapless, crafty, distracted, dismissive, energetic, lazy and ultimately loving mother of a lower-middle-class Indiana family. (I never missed an episode of that show.) Fans of those characters will find bits of them in her new one.
The situation in the comedy is that Carol (Heaton), a retired schoolteacher, has gone to medical school after her husband left her, sacrificing her retirement to a second career. “Now he’s sleeping on his sister’s futon and I’m a doctor,” she says, “so life is good.” We meet her on her first day of residency, at least twice the age of her fellow interns, a joke repeated with fair regularity. (Kyle MacLachlan, as the head of surgery, is the other not-young person in the cast.) The show touches on the tropes of medical dramas — residents competing for patients, misdiagnoses re-diagnosed, even the necessity of delivering bad news — and wants you to have a feeling or two about them. But it’s paced for laughs.
Like “The Middle’s” Frankie Heck, Carol is a chatterbox, essentially optimistic and cheerful, and not particularly interested in following the rules. When Carol tells a patient whose gurney she has difficulty maneuvering, “I had an Oldsmobile like this once, took out a mailbox and a small family … of gnomes! Garden gnomes — I should lead with that,” it’s a line that could have come right out of “The Middle.” She’s more empathetic, less selfish and less feral than Frankie, on the one hand inexperienced (and hungry for this new experience), and on the other a person who can wield maternal authority. “I feel ashamed,” says one of her young colleagues, having been dressed down by Carol, “but also motivated.”
Goggins is best known for playing Timothy Olyphant’s nemesis Boyd Crowder in six seasons of “Justified,” Danny McBride‘s quasi-nemeses in “Vice Principals” and “The Righteous Gemstones” and, going back awhile, a toxic cop on “The Shield.” (He’s been in a couple of action shows, as well — the military “The Six,” on History Channel, and the British spy series “Deep State,” which showed here on Epix this year.)
What he has never played is an ordinary person with ordinary friends and family, and while that might not sound exciting on the face of it, it’s refreshing to see, as if the actor had survived a long, dark night with a new lease on life.
Not that Wade, the character he plays here, is a model of equanimity. He’s at a kind of psychological juncture, unfinished to a point that makes him seem childlike at times. When we meet him, he’s still defrosting meals brought to him in sympathy after his wife died; there are dogs lying on his kitchen counters. (Why a dog would want to do this, I don’t know, but it looks good). He also has two daughters (Ruby Jay and Makenzie Moss, excellent in well-written roles) living in a state of comfortable, lazily antagonistic anarchy.
Then the food runs out and Wade is shocked back into reality. His friends (two very married couples, one played by Rob Corddry and Michaela Watkins, and the other by Omar Miller and Maya Lynne Robinson) strongly encourage him to get himself together and back in the game. As a mature man with his own stable business, a father, not divorced or in the throes of a midlife crisis, he’s a “unicorn,” a rare creature and a catch. Women do like him, but he’s in no rush to capitalize on that fact. (Which is also refreshing to see.)
Created by Bill Martin and Mike Schiff, who created the very good Donal Logue/Megyn Price sitcom “Grounded for Life,” “The Unicorn,” like “Carol’s Second Act,” has not set out to explore new horizons in television. The single parent — widowed, divorced, or what have you — has been a staple of television comedy from “My Three Sons,” to “Full House,” from “The Andy Griffith Show” to “Suburgatory,” from “The Doris Day Show” to “Better Things.” ABC has a sitcom actually called “Single Parents.” And stories in which a person starts dating again after a long spell — and, in more recent shows, is introduced to the strange new world of swiping left and swiping right — are a dime a dozen.
Boldness is not the point. (We are on CBS, the most creatively conservative of the broadcast networks.) If anything, “The Unicorn” is at times muted by its effort to underscore the warmth of its ambitions. There’s a kind of waiting-room airlessness to the production, a bland, aspirational look I associate with pharmaceutical advertisements; acoustic guitar arpeggios signify meaningful moments, and the inevitable big, craftsman-style spaces the characters inhabit look ripped from the pages of a furniture catalog. (Only the kids’ rooms betray real human habitation.)
It’s not fatal, in any case, and perhaps only something a person whose job it is to look too hard at television will notice. The cast all do lovely work — Goggins is entirely at ease playing a person not entirely at ease with the new rules of romance, and his castmates are reliably funny as they push him along and offer secondhand advice.
“My sister Meg told me she saw her date roll up in a PT Cruiser,” Robinson’s character tells him, “so she went on the app and canceled him before he cleared the valet stand. And then she called an Uber, which sadly was also him.”
When: 8:30 p.m. Thursday
Rating: TV-PG-DL (may be unsuitable for young children with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)
‘Carol’s Second Act’
When: 9:30 p.m. Thursday
Rating: TV-PG-D (may be unsuitable for young children with an advisory for suggestive dialogue)