Review: Dad’s in charge in the funny, smart ‘Surviving Jack’

Los Angeles Times Television Critic

There is something both touching and irritating about Justin Halpern’s dogged determination to build a career out of his father’s matter-of-fact insights and profane lyricism.

Halpern, you will remember, was one of the first to prove that Twitter could lead to Bigger Things — in 2009, just months after he began posting his father’s salty sayings, Halpern had a contract for a book. This led to a television show called "$#*! My Dad Says” that starred fellow Twitter star William Shatner. It bombed in the spectacular fashion that often accompanies too much new-media hype.

Halpern, bless his heart, remained undeterred, publishing another book about life with his undeniably remarkable father (along with being a philosopher king, Halpern père is a doctor of nuclear medicine) called “I Suck at Girls.” Not surprisingly, given the strange and random heart of the television industry these days, this too has been made into a series. “Surviving Jack” premieres Thursday night on Fox.

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Where, I am very afraid, it will offer even more encouragement to writers with “unique” parents (see also “The Goldbergs”) and nurture the foolhardy notion that any premise for any show can be saved by reframing it.


Because despite all odds, “Surviving Jack” is terrific. Funny and smart, poignant and believable, it is undoubtedly the best new comedy of the season.

It would be easy and not inaccurate to designate Christopher Meloni as the main reason for this. As this version of Halpern’s father, Meloni is such a master of deadpan wit and wisdom that it’s hard not to wonder why he was wasting his talent on “Law & Order: SVU” for all those years.

Fond of his scotch, but never drunk, a reader of medical journals and popular fiction, and armed with a thousand hilarious one-liners, Meloni’s Jack Dunlevy is a confident, mouthy, slightly baffled but essentially solid father who also looks great in a T-shirt.

At long last, the kind of dad a mother could love.

As good as it is, however, Meloni’s performance could not carry an entire series, and it fortunately doesn’t have to. Where "$#*! My Dad Says” was a creakily manufactured odd-couple comedy — repressed adult son forced to move in with unfiltered retired dad — “Surviving Jack” returns the action to the origin story: Halpern’s adolescence.

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Set in the 1990s (cue top 40 nostalgia and techno fashion), it opens as the Dunlevy family is undergoing a big change. After years of being the primary caregiver, Joanne (Rachael Harris) is going to law school, leaving her doctor and former-military husband in charge.

A slight tang of the “Mr. Mom” sub-genre, yes, but this sort of thing was actually happening to many families in the ‘80s and ‘90s, which makes it relatable to many older viewers (including me) as well as younger audiences perhaps more used to the notion of a stay-at-home dad. Mercifully, the jokes steer clear of Idiot Dad peering in confusion at the dials of the washing machine while impatient and exhausted Mom taps her foot and just does it herself. Because, honestly, what can you expect from a man?

The Dunlevy marriage is clearly built on mutual respect (a rare enough thing in comedy), and Jack, as he assures Joanne, is more than capable of keeping the trains of family life running on time; it’s the emotional needs of his two teenagers — Frankie (Connor Buckley) and Rachel (Claudia Lee) — that confuse him.

As it turns out, not every situation can be remedied by sending his son out to run laps around the neighborhood in the middle of the night or by pretending that his daughter’s boyfriend of six weeks simply doesn’t exist. (“I’m a doctor, the only thing I take seriously after six weeks is diarrhea.”)

So it’s that kind of show, in which the parent who may “love those damn kids” but doesn’t want to hang out with them learns that his kids are people he actually likes. His kids also learn the same about him.

In other words, an actual family comedy.


‘Surviving Jack’

Where: Fox

When: 9:30 p.m. Thursday

Rating: TV-14-DLS (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language and sex)