By Chris Byrd
Catholic News Service
NEW YORK (CNS) -- The outstanding chemistry between lead actors Judd Hirsch and Jermaine Fowler sustains "Superior Donuts," CBS' promising -- if uneven -- new comedy.
The series premiered Feb. 2, presumably in the hope that following immediately after the long-running "Big Bang Theory" would help its kickoff. All subsequent episodes of the show, which is based on Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts' eponymous play, will air Mondays, 9-9:30 p.m. EST.
Gratuitous vulgarity detracts from the show's more appealing aspects. But characters firing guns at a shooting range is the extent of the series' violence. And, through the three episodes available for preview, there hasn't been any sexual activity. Considering these elements, "Superior Donuts" is certainly appropriate viewing for adults and possibly for teens as well.
In the pilot, Arthur Przybyszewski (Hirsch), an elderly -- and cranky -- Polish Jew hired Franco Wicks (Fowler), an enterprising African-American graffiti artist in his 20s, to work in his doughnut shop, which Arthur first opened in 1969.
Arthur recalls his establishment's heyday when factory workers made Superior Donuts legendary and beloved to generations of Chicagoans. Now, however, in his constantly gentrifying neighborhood, Arthur realizes he can't compete with the Starbucks across the street.
He asks Franco to generate ideas to attract new customers, and Franco assures him, he'll help "bring this place into the 20th century."
"You mean the 21st?" Arthur asks.
"No, I don't." Franco says.
Viewers of a certain age, along with those well versed in TV lore, will immediately recognize the similarities between this show's premise and that of NBC's long-ago series "Chico and the Man." From September 1974 until his untimely death by suicide less than three years later, Freddie Prinze as breezy Chico Rodriguez tangled good-naturedly with Jack Albertson's curmudgeonly East Los Angeles garage owner, Ed Brown.
When Franco flavors doughnuts with sriracha hot sauce, and they become a big hit, Arthur realizes he should change with the times and invites Franco to learn how to make doughnuts. "Now, you're watching," Arthur says to Franco. "Tomorrow, you may work your way up to observing."
Franco appreciates Arthur's encouragement of his artistic hopes, which his own father didn't nurture in him. He develops a fondness and genuine concern for the much older man, especially when, worried about neighborhood crime, Arthur purchases a gun.
Although Franco doesn't want Arthur to own a weapon, he also urges him not to go out in his bathrobe at four in the morning to get a paper. Instead, Franco suggests Arthur get his news online "like everyone else under 90."
Hirsch is appropriately scruffy and gruff as Arthur, but he doesn't lay on the character's cantankerous ways too thickly. The veteran of several sitcoms, most notably the great series "Taxi," Hirsch delivers the measured, assured performance of an actor with more than 50 years of TV, film and theater credits.
Better known as a standup comedian, Fowler will be a revelation to most viewers. Resisting the temptation to turn his character into a caricature of a hip-hop street person, he's affable and energetic as Franco.
Playing cop Randy DeLuca, the daughter of Arthur's best friend, Katey Sagal is another welcome addition to the cast. The veteran of many TV shows, Sagal is best known as Peg Bundy from Fox's raunchy sitcom "Married ... With Children." Although the long-running gag about cops and doughnuts has been flayed to death, Sagal is an outstanding foil to the series' leads.
The rest of the "Superior Donuts" lineup isn't as stellar, however. Shop regulars include Carl "Tush" Tushisnki (David Koechner) and the Iraqi owner of the dry cleaner next door, Fawz (Maz Jobrani).
Tush uses the place as a base of operations to take odd jobs, while Fawz is preoccupied with pressuring Arthur to sell his store. Since they're not well-rounded, these characters don't enhance the show's value.
The writers also tend to rely on overly broad, crass and lazy innuendo to elicit laughter, as they do in a series of jokes about Tush's nickname and anatomy. This humor detracts from the well-earned, genuinely funny moments, such as an extended -- and memorable -- exchange about cronuts.
By eschewing its more commonplace elements, developing a stronger supporting cast and building on the performances of Hirsch, Fowler and Sagal, "Superior Donuts" could have a tasty future.
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Byrd is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.