Fox’s ‘Surviving Jack’ Makes a Dubious Case for ’90s Nostalgia

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Going in, Surviving Jack has a lot to prove. Premiering tonight on Fox, it’s the newest sitcom from Justin Halpern, who is best known for creating the Shit My Dad Says Twitter account that spawned a book and a television show — for a while he was the go-to guy to jokingly blame whenever some Twitter account became something more. $h*! My Dad Says the TV show was abysmal, panned by critics and canceled after one season. Surviving Jack is another autobiographical effort from Halpern, this one taking place in 1991. It’s a nostalgic family sitcom with a “Remember the ’90s” vibe trying to simultaneously warm our hearts while reminding us of Hypercolor T-shirts. Here’s something to add to your list of “Want to feel old?” questions: Surviving Jack, essentially a period piece, includes a Seinfeld clip in its nostalgia pile. The show is, to be fair, more than its time period — but not too much more.

Above all, Surviving Jack is a story about family. There are more than enough of these stories on television, so the selling points here are the ’90s setting and the comically strict father played by Christopher Meloni. Jack is an ex-military guy and a doctor who is taking a bigger role in raising his teenage kids as their mother goes back to law school. Within minutes of the pilot he’s already better written and more developed than the father on Shit My Dad Says. Technically, I suppose, they are the same father, but they exist in different time periods; I don’t recommend thinking too much about this multi-network universe Halpern has created because I don’t buy tough-as-nails Christopher Meloni aging into annoying and slightly senile William Shatner any more than I bought Zac Efron aging into Matthew Perry in 17 Again. It’s implausible!

This father-son dynamic works better when adolescence is involved — more hands-on parenting, more awkward situations primed for comedy, more resistance and rebellion, etc. — than it does when it’s a boring adult moving back in with his parents. Also, the best thing about Surviving Jack is Christopher Meloni, a brilliant actor whose comedic chops are oft-forgotten because of his long stint on Law & Order: SVU. (Now is a good time to revisit Wet Hot American Summer, but then again, there’s never a bad time for that.) Meloni plays the maybe-psychopathic father with a stern quietness, sometimes only speaking when necessary in order to further convey his terrifying presence. He has the intelligence of a doctor, the cadence of a soldier, and the exhaustion of a father. Sometimes he goes a bit overboard — the second episode involves him helping his son and his friends make the baseball team, and his methods are definitely unorthodox but also a little torturous. It’s overdone for comedic effect and doesn’t feel too funny, but Meloni is game. In fact, Christopher Meloni is game for everything on this show, and he’s much better than the material he’s given but he excels at all of it.

As for the ’90s setting, its necessity is a little confusing. What a strange time period to set a show in, especially because it doesn’t seem so far in the past. Everything is slightly altered and slightly more colorful, but it’s an era that isn’t drastically different from now. Period shows work best when they’re so far removed from the present that they work as time capsules or flashy history textbooks — Mad Men is an obvious example. Surviving Jack could have easily taken place in 2014 without changing much more than the hairdos and the kitchen appliances.

I’m reminded of a similar show on the air right now, ABC The Goldbergs, another autobiographical family period piece. It takes place in an unspecified year in the late 1980s (both shows have a bit about a teen girl being obsessed with Christian Slater, right down to the posters on the wall) and also relies heavily on crazy clothing and set pieces. The Goldbergs is noticeably sweeter and lacks the bite that Meloni brings to Surviving Jack, but they’re both fascinating cases of nostalgia. The Goldbergs is completely overrun with nostalgia in every scene; Surviving Jack uses it more as an atmosphere than as a necessary element.

There are noticeable problems with Surviving Jack (the all-knowing voiceover being the biggest), but the family relationship, particularly when Meloni’s Jack is more quiet observer than angry soldier, makes for some nice moments in the first two episodes. It’s not something that I can recommend watching week to week yet, but I can see it becoming a fun watch when it finds a core focus. If nothing else, it shows an interesting learning curve for Justin Halpern — though maybe it’s time for him to break out of the father-son narrative.