Dad’s Casa, S1 E1: Pilot

“The nerdy guy from Community. Wouldn’t it be great if he put himself in ghostly-pale makeup and played a creepy version of a formerly famous recluse musician’s brother?”

“Wouldn’t it be great to watch a modern day Scarface starring the guy who played Malcolm in the Middle’s father?”

“How about we take one of the comedians from Key and Peele and have him make serious horror movies?”

These are all questions nobody asked. There was a time when, if you had asked them, the most you’d get out of someone would be a mocking “yeah, right.” Assuming they’d say anything at all in between gales of laughter.

Seems the era of Peak TV is all about the audacity to ask questions like these. And yet, what it begets can still be more than worthwhile, and take you to a world where the question itself seems ludicrous in hindsight. Breaking Bad is now an indelible landmark in our collective cultural history, and it’s given to us not just a show that’s unforgettable, but a new archetypical character. The ultimate mid-life crisis is now shaped in no small part by Walter White, and his turn from teacher/father to Kingpin to corpse.

Similarly, nobody would have asked for Tim Allen to shed his own sit-com skin—wholesome tool-timer, reactionary Trumpist, last bastion of toxic masculinity—and become the titular Dad that we now recognize as one of the finest hearts and gentlest souls in the turbulent river that is Surrogate-Fatherhood. Someone whose shoulder we wish we could cry on, whose wisdom always seemed perfect and perfectly imparted. Someone we warmly welcomed into our homes through even the most hoary of ancient-seeming television contrivances: the family Sitcom. But here we are, six seasons in and counting. Tim Allen filling up the very Huxtable-sized hole that the fall of Cosby ripped open in our national psyche.

But how did we get here? Season one of Dad’s Casa was no indication of the universal reach of the show, by any means. There were contrivances aplenty, stock character tropes that felt just as hackneyed as the ones from Home Improvement decades ago. Cheesy, mushy moments that were obviously foisted onto the show by clueless producers before Allen himself was given creative freedom midway through season two. And that laugh-track, like a spray-on sealant over a Rembrandt. So much gloss covering up the real radiance beneath.

But there always was one thing from the start: Allen, Dad himself, effortlessly overcoming his own past as an artist, a person. Daring to take a role that was once thought to be whitewashing, now to the point where his own whiteness is an essential part of the commentary on race that this brave show refuses to shy away from. Allen was always the strong beating heart of this show, and even in the clumsy first season you can feel his guidance pouring out of the television and into your lap.

The premiere episode, its storyline culled from the unaired pilot that got bought up by AMC, follows Allen as he starts moving his belongings into the former inner-city children’s community play-space. Of course, in one of those conveniences only seen in sit-coms and sci-fi, nobody told the community kids about the change of ownership. From there, the premiere shovels up most of its laughs (or attempts at them) by constantly throwing new, cute, needful street urchins at Allen, who is just too big hearted to turn them away once they start referring to him as the “Dad.” And thus we get improvised ping-pong on Dad’s coffee table, a clothes hamper ride down the stairwell, and some of Allen’s bigger pots and pans being dressed up by adorable girls who somehow bring their own doll wigs wherever they go.

Look, the story’s not meant to make sense. It’s meant to force Allen to reckon with these children, and give them a reason to see him as a good guy when the city inevitably comes calling to correct their error. And no, it isn’t realistic for Allen to offer to adopt all the children as a last ditch gamble to keep them from going back to the orphanage. But it’s the incredible charisma of Allen, and his obvious love for the kids (who are to be credited by doing their part to make that connection feel genuine) that is what we as long-time viewers should take away from this now-institution of television. What we have here are the first misguided baby-steps of a show idea that is ludicrous and wrong-headed on its face. But without it, we wouldn’t have six seasons of smiles and tears. Six seasons of magic. And it’s all because someone asked the wrong question at the right time: “What if Tim Allen, but good?”

Grade: B-