We’re not sure what happened when the calendar flipped to 2022, but it seems like the network sitcom is making a big comeback. Ghosts and The Wonder Years led the way last year, but since the new year, we’ve gotten good-to-great comedies like Abbott Elementary, Grand Crew and American Auto, one after the other. Now, Fox is getting into the act with the new comedy Welcome To Flatch, with none other than Bridesmaids director Paul Feig heavily involved.
Opening Shot: With bucolic small-town scenes like fields and farms as the backdrop, a graphic says that Americans long for small town life, and Fox sent a film crew to Flatch, Ohio — population 1,526 — to find out what life is like there.
The Gist: The main people we follow are Kelly Mallet (Chelsea Holmes) and her cousin Lloyd Mallet (Sam Straley), who everyone calls “Shrub.” They’ve been best friends since they were babies and they do everything for each other; Shrub even eats the cinnamon Munchkins Kelly doesn’t want, just because he feels bad for them.
They both think of the local pastor, Rev. Joseph “Father Joe” Binghoffer (Seann William Scott) as a father figure. He got the name “Father Joe” because people think of him as a priest. He really does try to keep them from cursing and getting in too much trouble, but Kelly and Shrub are just slightly immature for two people who left their teens years ago.
It’s the annual scarecrow festival, which is Shrub’s time to shine; he’s an expert at building a winning scarecrow, which he makes sure has feet and hands. Kelly is getting ready for the skillet flinging contest, which the Mallets have won for years. At the festival, she tries to get the attention of her dad Bobby (Jason MacDonald), but he more or less ignores her; he is busy with his new baby. Kelly also has to contend with Nadine Garcia-Parney (Taylor Ortega), who used to be her best friend when they were in grade school but who is now an overachieving new mom who runs the town’s historical society.
Also at the festival is Cheryl Peterson (Aya Cash), a journalist who moved to Flatch with Joe, right before he dumped her to “devote more time to the church.” She happily talks about becoming editor of the local paper (circulation just over 500), but the cameras catch her crying in her office. Mickey St. Jean (Justin Linville) calls Shrub “bro” because they were born in the same hospital on the same day, but Shrub finds him annoying — though Mickey is the only one in town with a PlayStation. Mandy Matthews (Krystal Smith) entered both contests, and Kelly and Shrub find her to be “crazy” and intense.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? Welcome To Flatch has the same feel as The Office and Parks And Rec, which makes sense since the former show was mainly directed by Paul Feig. Feig is an executive producer of Flatch and directed the first episode.
Our Take: Also like The Office, Welcome To Flatch is based on a British series, This Country. But Feig and veteran showrunner Jenny Bicks (The Big C, Sex And The City) have a good handle on shaping the format so that it stands on its own. Plus Feig’s experience with The Office helps the now well-used mockumentary format not be the central joke of the pilot. Yes, there are side interviews, but at particular points the documentary crew’s presence fades away when needed.
One of the other things that Feig and Bicks both bring to this show is a good balance of drama and pathos with the funny stuff. First, Kelly and Shrub are funny simply because they haven’t really grown up and still act like teenagers; never leaving a small town — or each other’s sides — can do that. But neither is played as dumb; Shrub in particular is very well versed in scarecrow building, including making the head proportional with the body.
We certainly know their lives haven’t been smooth, as Shrub’s dad left him when he was young and Kelly’s poor relationship with her dad is right on camera for everyone to see. The scenes where Kelly tries to get her dad’s approval and attention were the best ones of the pilot, even though there was nothing funny about them. It’s that smooth tonal shift, from the silliness of Shrub giving away a farmer’s potatoes because he hates his scarecrow placement to the sadness of Kelly’s situation, that tells us this show will work.
Having Scott and Cash amongst the cast of relative unknowns helps with the familiarity factor, and there likely will be a bit of a will-they-won’t-they component with the two of them, but they’re not there to be central to all the storylines, and that’s fine with us.
A great sense of what Flatch is like as a community was built in the first episode, and that will bode well for the show, which, like Abbott Elementary, had one of the strongest starts of any network sitcom this season.
Sex and Skin: None, at least in the first episode.
Parting Shot: After Shrub protests being disqualified from the contest by setting the scarecrows on fire, he and Kelly claim victory when his antics land on the police blotter on page 3 of the local paper, while Nadine’s skillet throwing win landed on page 5. “Winners,” Kelly tells the camera.
Sleeper Star: We can’t wait to see what Bicks and company have in store for Krystal Smith as Mandy. We don’t know a ton about her besides the fact that she’s going to be a town disruptor, in a very funny way.
Most Pilot-y Line: None we could find.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Welcome To Flatch gets out of the gate almost fully-formed, with a world we want to watch and characters that are funny and have the potential for a lot of room to develop.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.