Duncanville is as average as its nonentity of a protagonist, though without the vivid imagination he claims to possess.
This recap of Duncanville Season 1, Episode 1, “Pilot”, contains spoilers.
If I was tasked with designing your average animated network sitcom – you know, funny in spurts, manic by nature, occasionally interested in larger ideas but never enough to bother with them for longer than a surreal cutaway gag, and so on, and so forth – then I imagine it’d look a lot like Amy Poehler and Mike Scully’s Duncanville (Fox), so-called after its lanky ginger 15-year-old protagonist who is himself, the show’s own marketing insists, perfectly average.
Duncan’s middle-of-the-road identity is the point, obviously, since his mundane existence compels him to want more, though not necessarily be sure of exactly what kind of more he wants. That tees up a bunch of weird but not weird enough imaginings and ideas – Duncanville Episode 1 opens with Duncan free-climbing a mountain called the Devil’s A*s in a sequence that features Alex Honnold from Free Solo as himself – that are sometimes a bit funny, and sometimes might charitably be described as quite clever, but never quite mesh into something that could genuinely be considered a broader style, theme or point. It is, in fact, a bit too reminiscent of Family Guy, complete with the same constant cutaways and cheeky references to pop-culture items that’ll ensure the show ages like full-fat milk.
It also doesn’t help that Duncan (voiced, by the way, by Poehler) is by far the least interesting thing in his own show. That’s the point too, obviously – he’s bland so his vivid imagination can conjure up all the traits he’d like to possess and experiences he’d like to have, but his mind isn’t as clever as he thinks it is either. He’s surrounded by better characters with much more reason for being, but they get the short shrift in comparison. The parents, Jack (Ty Burrell) and Annie (also Poehler), slot into nuclear family archetypes – Jack’s desperate to be liked and appreciated; Annie is a tedious nag – but feel like actual characters, at least, and his sisters, Kimberly (Riki Lindhome) and 6-year-old Jing (Joy Osmanski) are show-stealers. A lot is made of Duncan’s crush on wannabe-activist classmate Mia (Rashida Jones) that might bear fruit in a few episodes’ time, and his Loser’s Club-style oddball buddies – including a standout Betsy Sodaro – aren’t the worst clique to show up on network telly, even if they’re far from the best.
But this is the problem. Duncanville Season 1, Episode 1 is just so aggressively average in basically every way that it’s difficult to have much of worth to say about it. The visuals reflect the same fascination with general mundanity interspersed with occasional doses of clashing ideas or quick-to-spoil references, and also uncomfortably evoke Family Guy, albeit without what has now become that show’s signature rounded, oddly cuddly aesthetic. It’s also about kids, but they’re written and voiced by adults and no effort seems to have been made to disguise the fact; a lot of the nods are to things and people that nobody this age would have ever heard of, and that will likely test the recollections of even the target demographic, which one has to assume are older teens more so than adults. This is all probably quite fitting – an average show about average characters floating idly through life isn’t likely to have a distinct voice. Unfortunately, it kind of needs one.
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