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Review: In ABC’s ‘Bless This Mess,’ the clueless hipster as comedy target

Review: In ABC’s ‘Bless This Mess,’ the clueless hipster as comedy target
Lake Bell and Dax Shepard trade city living for country life in the ABC comedy "Bless This Mess," co-created by Bell and Elizabeth Meriwether ("New Girl"). (John Fleenor/ABC)

“Bless This Mess,” which begins its six-episode run Tuesday on ABC, finds Lake Bell and Dax Shepard as Rio and Mike, leaving New York City for the complicated simplicity of rural Nebraska. They are clueless cosmopolitans, ready to trade city life for farm living, without having given the matter much thought at all.

“I'm a Midwesterner at heart,” says Mike to Rio. “I've got farming in my blood. You've seen me in Whole Foods: I always walk straight up to the right heirloom tomato, I know the best one, I grab it.”

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“I mean, you're from the suburbs of St. Louis,” says Rio, suppressing her skepticism, “but I understand what you're talking about.”

The series was created by Bell (who wrote, directed and starred in the 2013 film “In a World ...”) and Elizabeth Meriwether (“New Girl”). Only the pilot was available to review, but it is fully formed and funny, a dry contemporary comedy built on an old foundation.

Mike and Rio have been married a year — a year in which they claim to have had “no fights.” That, obviously, will change.

Mike, a music journalist, has inherited from his great aunt the farm where he spent what he recalls as idyllic childhood summers. (That he once “wrote an article about [Terminator X], the DJ from Public Enemy who started a very successful ostrich farm” is his idea of “studying farming a quite a bit.”) Rio, a therapist, believes, on the basis of an old photograph, that she will soon be living “in a Pinterest page.”

Ed Begley Jr., left, and Pam Grier are Nebraskans with "sexual chemistry" in the new ABC comedy "Bless This Mess."
Ed Begley Jr., left, and Pam Grier are Nebraskans with "sexual chemistry" in the new ABC comedy "Bless This Mess." (John Fleenor / ABC)

Must I tell you that the property they find, once they arrive to the accompaniment of Canned Heat's cheery “Goin' Up the Country,” is something short of pinworthy? (“Guess it could use a coat of paint,” says Mike, “something warmer, like a light brown or a medium yellow.”) Its state of disrepair allows for some good visual jokes, which have that flavor of being utterly expected and a complete surprise.

Viewers of a certain age or those with an interest in television history may detect in the premise certain similarities to “Green Acres,” the great — yes, great — 1960s sitcom in which Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor, as Lisa and Oliver Douglas, leave Manhattan’s Park Avenue for the whimsical hamlet of Hooterville. There is also “The Egg and I,” the 1947 film in which Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert head off to the country to raise chickens. And to some extent, it is “Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House,” the 1948 film in which Cary Grant and Myrna Loy brave the wilds of Connecticut to make a mess into a mansion. And, for that matter, it is a little bit “Schitt's Creek.”

Just as the Douglases of “Green Acres” inherited a hired hand, Mike and Rio get Rudy (Ed Begley Jr., in a part, for a change, not playing off public perceptions of Ed Begley Jr.), who lives in their barn and sometimes uses their bathroom; they learn this while in the shower. Rudy has “a lot of sexual chemistry” (of a particularly nebulous kind) with Constance (Pam Grier), who in addition to running the local hardware store, is “the sheriff too and I run the local theater, and we just did a production of ‘Les Mis’ and I played a French ho.” She is also a Voice of Wisdom. (“Curb Your Enthusiasm’s” Susie Essman, as Rio’s mother, who participates by phone, is another sort of voice — a New York voice, frantic and loud. Her “Put the cow on the phone, Rio!” is comedy’s gift to you.).

Though “Bless This Mess” mocks the pretensions of (not exactly) young urban professionals going country — they have come to Nebraska toting biscotti, unsweetened ginger beer and ashwagandha tea — this is not the Red State Comedy networks fretted they'd forgotten to make in the wake of the 2016 election. If the pilot is anything to go by, these characters will exist outside current events; clashes will be cultural or a matter of sense versus nonsense.

Even the neighbors Beau (David Koechner) and Kay (Lennon Parham) and their fractionally oddball son Jacob (JT Neal), who want to buy Mike and Rio's place and turn it into “a meat locker,” are no worse than ironically mocking of the newcomers. And, of course, they have a right to be: “What do you mean you're farmers, just all of a sudden?” says Beau. “We've been doing this all our lives. You don't just announce one day you’re a farmer. I mean, my wife’s a supermodel!”

“I'm Christie Brinkley!” says Kay.

Like most such stories, “Bless This Mess” privileges the country over the town, prizes the hicks above the slickers. (It is almost always the city people who are changed by the country, in our mythmaking, and the country people who bring change to the city, though there are signs the couple may be of value in their new community.) To the extent that Mike and Rio patronize their neighbors, it’s not that they look down on them but that they invest them with magical qualities. (“That felt amazing; that was like a victory for me,” says Rio after a nodding interchange with a local.) Where the Nebraskans just live their lives, Mike and Rio compulsively narrate theirs, to themselves and each other, because they don't know who they are yet.

Dax Shepard as Mike, left, and Lake Bell as Rio in ABC's "Bless This Mess."
Dax Shepard as Mike, left, and Lake Bell as Rio in ABC's "Bless This Mess." (John Fleenor / ABC)

This makes them likable; they’re confused but sincere and mean no harm. Bell shuffles facial expressions the way a magician riffles cards and can switch directions three times in a single sentence. Shepard pulls off a nice mix of leading man and dope; Preston Sturges could have put him to work.

The show has a short order because it's coming on at mid-mid-season. But a six-episode season was enough for “Fawlty Towers” to become a colossus of television. (And there were only two seasons.) We may not be rewatching “Bless This Mess” in 40 years, but it’s worth embracing now.

‘Bless This Mess’

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Where: ABC

When: 9:30 p.m. Tuesday

Rating: TV-PG-DLS (may be unsuitable for young children with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language and sexual content)

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