Sullivan & Son: Crass, but Pretty Funny

The promos for TBS’s new sitcom, Sullivan & Son seemed crass, stereotypical, and at times cringe worthy.  There was very little context, so I really wasn’t sure if I was going to like this or be offended by it. There is a lot of shock value in the show. It is crass, stereotypical, and cringe worthy. It just also happens to be pretty funny. The series opened with two episodes last night that both showed potential.

Steve Sullivan is the son. He is a workaholic corporate attorney on Wall Street who is visiting his family in Pittsburgh for his father’s birthday party. The party is being held at Sullivan & Son, a bar that the Sullivan family has owned for generations. Steve is bringing his girlfriend of 8 months to the party. It is his first time back home since they started dating and she is obviously more serious than he is about the relationship. This type of dynamic seems to really establish Sullivan’s character from the get-go. Steve is portrayed by showrunner and comic Steve Byrne. He is a man who is simply going through the motions of life. He has a “big and important” job (which he has to describe several times throughout the show) and a girlfriend who assumes they are going to move in together. He is following a safe and conventional path, but that isn’t what he wants. In this sense, Steve’s character seems very real as he struggles to grow.

At the party, it doesn’t take Steve long to realize where he is truly comfortable. He approaches one of his old female friends and his girlfriend is very possessive, going so far as to introduce Steve as her fiance. When his female friend says she didn’t know he was engaged, Steve quickly retorts “Neither did I.” Steve’s subtle attempt at establishing independence works very well.

During the toasts at the birthday party, Steve’s father, Jack announces that he is selling the bar, seemingly to appease Steve’s stern and unforgiving mother. As he is making his speech, the patrons chime in and all agree that “the son [should] take over.” Steve does not initially like the idea at all. The fact is, he doesn’t see it as a job. He grew up around the bar, he has been working in it since he was 10 years old, and he does not want to leave the life where he feels secure. Trying to defend himself, Steve says that he’s the best bartender to ever work at Sullivan & Son. This naturally offends his father, who challenges Steve to a bartending contest. Steve is finally finding his comfort zone and is considering taking a job where he doesn’t have to feel like he’s working. His father’s methods of gaining respect are a bit absurd, but they made me laugh.

The cringe factor came in the form of frequent patron Hank, played by SNL alum and Bill Murray’s brother Brian Doyle-Murray. Hank is a very bigoted and racist old man who struggles to repress his completely unacceptable thoughts and adjust to modern times. It was Jack who taught Hank that the non-white patrons “just wanted to have a beer like you and me.” He racism still seeps through, though, especially when he makes a point of saying “No Mexicans!” It’s tasteless, offensive, and disrespectful. However, I couldn’t help but find it a bit funny that someone could be so ridiculous in this day and age.

Steve’s heritage is also a very important theme in the pilot. The son of a Korean mother and an Irish father, Steve seems at war with his own ethnic identity. He pleads with his mother to buy the bar, citing that all his life, he’s been “the perfect Korean kid” and that it might be time for him to embrace that “maybe [he’s] just Irish.” This was a very poignant moment in the pilot. It seems to be a driving force for the show to make light of divisive issues.

In the second episode, Steve is finally free from his corporate life and his girlfriend.  He is very much enjoying his new life as owner of Sullivan & Son. However, he quickly learns it’s not that easy. This episodes becomes another opportunity for Steve to develop. His parents attempt to pay off the health inspector to avoid trouble, but Steve insists that everything should be inspected. His mother protests, saying that the inspectors always find “one little pissy thing” and that’s exactly what the inspector finds in the bar. This is very hard for Steve to handle because, despite his mother’s cold demeanor, she brings her own brand of logic to the situation.

Forced to shut down the bar for a week, Steve and his friends are uneasy. There is a lot of hyperbole in this episode, but it fits in context. There is sheer despair at the prospect of not being able to have a drink. Steve is the one trying to calm everyone down, but they pressure him to form a speakeasy. This is especially good for one of his friends, who is delighted at no longer having to help his kids with their homework.

There have not been many sitcoms to take place in a bar since Cheers and it’s extremely hard to follow in the footsteps of a show so iconic, especially on basic cable. However, like many sitcoms with one communal setting, Steve’s bar only serves as a backdrop to explore seriously funny themes and refreshing character development. It is not likely that the characters of a TBS sitcom will become famous, but Sullivan & Son seems to have enough potential for a modest run and perhaps a cult following.

Posted on July 20, 2012, in Cable, Comedy, Primetime, TBS and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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