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'Cooper Barrett's Guide to Surviving Life' slowly matures beyond the bro-fest

'Cooper Barrett's Guide to Surviving Life' slowly matures beyond the bro-fest
James Earl, Justin Bartha, Charlie Saxton, Jack Cutmore-Scott in "Cooper Barrett's Guide to Surviving Life." (Joe Viles / FOX)

"Cooper Barrett's Guide to Surviving Life," a post-collegiate comedy premiering Sunday on Fox, is set in a world where men are boys and women are women but are also girls and sometimes (one of the) boys.

Once titled "Cooper Barrett's Guide to Surviving Your 20s," the series might seem a case of the network wanting to get a new young-folks friendship sitcom established before the cast of "New Girl" reaches early middle age: This one's for the millennials.

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As in the similarly named "Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide" and the slightly less similarly named "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," young people resist the system and seize the day as the star delivers wisdom straight to the camera. (In what feels like an admission of influence, "Bueller" costar Alan Ruck will appear later in the season.)

For someone who does not see his own face reflected in this mirror, the show might be off-putting at first, or fatally. (Damn kids and their cellphones.) But it's fundamentally an old-fashioned sitcom, rooted in the same kinds of misunderstandings and harebrained schemes that have powered the form since Lucy's first white lie to Ricky, with enough curves and angles and random acts of dialogue ("I got a plan for every type of person except for mermaids"; "Modern capitalism is a farce with only the illusion of upward mobility") to make it feel relatively fresh.

Created by Jay Lacopo (born 1963, not a millennial), it stars Jack Cutmore-Scott as Cooper, the handsome one; Charlie Saxton as Neal, the short one; James Earl as Barry, the large one; Justin Bartha as Josh, Cooper's older brother, the comparatively responsible one; Liza Lapira as Josh's wife, Leslie, the other older one; and Meaghan Rath as Kelly, the girl down the hall, a teased love interest for Cooper and, eventually, someone for Leslie to talk to who isn't a dude.

Cutmore-Scott, relatively the newcomer among his costars, comes across as a younger, more cuddly version of Joel McHale in "Community"; and like McHale's Jeff Winger, his character improves by being shown to be just as much of a knucklehead as his friends, whom he appears to lead only by virtue of his being tall, conventionally good looking, having his name in the title and speaking to the camera. "You have more potential than anyone I've ever met," says Kelly, to indicate that he is living up to none of it.

Each of the four episodes available for review begins with a bad thing happening (a car on fire, Cooper tied to a chair, Paula Abdul waving a gun) and Cooper saying, for instance, "When you're in your 20s, you tend to feel like you're invincible, which can lead to getting into bad situations for some very dumb reasons," after which we rewind to learn those reasons. The solutions, though complicated, are just as dumb and often less than legal.

But if the characters seem overly invested at first in maintaining a dorm-room lifestyle into adulthood, of continuing to want to party like it's 2009, of desperately turning every event into a madcap adventure, the argument begins to shift ever so slightly toward a less fearful take on maturity.

As it goes on, the show becomes less of a bro-fest, a bro-stock, a bro-achella and more of a balanced coed ensemble comedy. Where Josh's marriage is initially pictured as something to escape from, giving Lapira's Leslie little to do except call and ask when he's coming home, later episodes walk them back from that sour position. (Their children, adverted to, are neither seen nor heard nor apparently looked after.) It is all more charming after the fourth episode than after the first.

"Just 'cause you're young doesn't mean you're invincible," Cooper admits finally. He will advise his peers to "back up your phone" or "pay your parking tickets," and to embrace trouble because desperation "can show you what you want, what you're capable of and, more importantly, what you already have." Sentimental, these youngsters.

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