“Here’s what every woman knows,” Sarayu Blue says in a voice-over kicking off her new sitcom “I Feel Bad.” “We feel bad about something almost every day.” The show, airing a preview episode Sept. 19 before settling into a Thursday-night timeslot, sets its tone early—it differentiates Blue’s Emet from other sitcom moms by her vulnerable honesty, her willingness to admit that not only is she not omnicompetent, she’s perpetually annoyed with herself for not being so.
The challenges Blue faces don’t go beyond traditional sitcom fare—meddling parents, kids developing minds of their own, balancing marriage and work—all of which it handles with élan and wit. Where the show loses its footing is in its depiction of Blue’s co-workers, video game designers whose outright misogyny the show makes the strange decision to play as comedy.
Emet works as a video-game designer, in an office filled with men (played by James Buckley, Zach Cherry, and Johnny Pemberton) who use their geekiness as an excuse for socially-sanctioned rudeness and outright cruelty. In what’s come to seem like a familiar equation in the era of entitled sci-fi fans, tech CEOs redefining acceptable workplace behavior, and the GamerGate movement, they combine a sense of disempowerment with an awareness that they, in actuality, have a great deal of social capital at a moment in which geek culture has become a lucrative force. Or, as one of Emet’s co-workers inelegantly puts it, “Nerds are cool now. We date models.” The geeks tell Emet that a character she’s designed for her game is “unbangable” and, later, that the character will “be really hot when she gets older.” Later, in a completely misjudged scene in which the trio is together without Emet (an unnecessary detour from the main action on a show notionally about a woman’s experience), they use a drone to spy on a woman at a bar, then allow it to fly into her head, knocking her to the floor unconscious. As a parable for the geeks’ entitlement to women’s bodies, this feels almost too obvious.
It’s rare for a show to quite so clearly have one element that works so strongly against the rest of the series. And yet the balance, in the pilot, between the toxicity of Emet’s co-workers and her generally fun and affirming home life is wildly off, so much so that certain jibes—as when Emet tells her daughter that her dance costume is “the kind of clothing that make juries extremely unsympathetic to victims”—read as less edgy than outright malicious. “Black-ish” has been able to pull off putting Anthony Anderson’s Dre into contentious conversation with his white coworkers in part because it actually feels like conversation. They come in later episodes to serve as advisors and sounding boards, telling Emet she should “manspread” more, advice she takes. They don’t just change the tenor of the show when they’re offscreen—they come to take over the plot even in their absence. “We have got to hire more women in this place,” she murmurs at one point. They… really should?
It is, of course, possible to create comedy featuring the perspectives of fairly gross individuals. But “I Feel Bad” has no real perspective on Emet’s coworkers other than amusement at how quirky their narcissism is, and how much she could learn from them. Which is a shame, because Blue is a genuinely gifted comic talent with timing to spare and insight enough to make for a show without quite so boisterous a gang of sidekicks, and because her plot in the first episode—coming to terms with the fact that her daughter has a mind of her own, and doing so in a manner that differs from the way her more domineering mother raised her—is sweet, charming, funny, and displays a real sensitivity for the conversations between mothers and daughters. (Other plots, hinging on goofy misunderstandings and Emet becoming effectively amoral, work less well, but the germ of a great, sweet show is here.) Blue has nothing to feel bad about, but for the fact that her show’s writers and her male costars are detracting from her work. But, of course, that’s hardly an unfamiliar phenomenon.
Comedy (three watched for review): NBC, preview Wed. Sept. 19, 10 p.m. E.T.; premiere Thurs., Oct. 4 9:30 p.m. E.T.
Executive Producers: Aseem Batra. Julie Anne Robinson, Amy Poehler, Dave Becky, Josh Maurer.
Cast: Sarayu Blue, Paul Adelstein, Madhur Jaffrey, Brian George, James Buckley, Johnny Pemberton, Zach Cherry, Lily Rose Silver, Rahm Braslaw