Funny Frantic Family Fragments
Main Cast: Colin Hanks, Betsy Brandt
Creator: Justin Adler
You know, it would probably be pretty easy to coast your way to a decent acting career as Tom Hanks’ kid. I don’t even think I would hold it against you. But Collin Hanks has chosen to do something different – be a really, really good actor. He’s turning into one of my faves after a season of Dexter, one of Fargo and now pulling out his comedy chops on Life in Pieces.
Of course, Hanks is not the only star of this show. Life in Pieces revolves around an extended family helmed by John and Joan Short (James Brolin and Dianne Wiest). He is a retired airline pilot, she is a semi-retired therapist. The couple has three grown children – Heather (Betsy Brandt who you will recognize as Hank’s wife from Breaking Bad) who is married to Tim (Dan Bakkedahl) and has three children; Matt (Thomas Sadoski) who is recently divorced, lost all his money, and is currently living in his parent’s garage; and Greg (Hanks) who is married to Jen (Zoe Lister-Jones) and has a brand new baby, their first.
This multi-generational family all lives in the same city and they spend a LOT of time together, as TV families are wont to do. Each episode of the show is broken into 4 segments, thus…Life in Pieces. Sometimes the segments are all obviously connected, sometimes not. Sometimes in linear order, other times not quite. It sounds a little odd, but it works very well. Each family member usually gets some or all of a segment, so we keep caught up with ongoing story lines. The delineation of the segments allows us to jump from one family to another, and the Seinfeldian style gymnastics that tie each episode together can be quite subtle, but they’re always there.
I’m impressed not only by how well the show is written with so many characters to keep up with in half hour chunks, but also by the really excellent performances of nearly every member of the cast. Hanks has probably the biggest role (but not by much) and proves that his comic timing is fantastic. His scenes with Lister-Jones are terrific, and he plays into the “baby of the family” role just enough to keep it funny every time it comes up. Running a close second in timing is Lister-Jones, who may take a few episodes to grow on you. To be fair, her character starts the show by giving birth and going through the early days of motherhood, and nobody is likeable during that. By the end of this first season, she is at the top of her game dealing with her husband’s chaotic family.
Major kudos also to James Brolin, who at the age of 77 finally seems to have found a role he really loves. His performance is the kind you see when someone is allowed to break loose and be the weird one, instead of always being the serious, handsome one. They still riff repeatedly on his good looks, but how can you not laugh at the guy from Hotel riding a cart behind a miniature pony while drinking a mai-tai?
Brandt, Bakkedahl, Sadoski, and Weist are all absolutely solid as well, and when they’re given enough to do can be absolutely hilarious. The one glitch in this ensemble cast is Niall Cunningham as Heather and Tim’s oldest child. The younger girls are spot on, but Cunningham has the misfortune of having to play an awkward teen. Maybe he’s just too good at it, or maybe his character isn’t written quite as sharply, but his scenes can be a little cringe-y in this first season.
I thoroughly enjoyed all 21 episodes of the first season of Life in Pieces (which I watched on Netflix – you can also find it on Amazon) and look forward to the second arriving on Instant Streaming. The show has been renewed by CBS for a third season as well. I would hazard against binge watching too hard. As with most sitcoms, watching too many episodes in a row can leave you burned out on the characters and the frantic pace. They are meant to be savored in smaller doses – I recommend 2 episodes per session. All in all a really good debut season for Life in Pieces.