November 26, 2020TV
The Unicorn is in its second season on CBS (Thursdays at 930 EST). The entire first season is available on Netflix. Walton Goggins plays Wade, a widowed father of two who, a year after his wife's death, is persuaded back into the dating pool by his friends and neighbors. It feels like a long time since I've watched an actual broadcast network sitcom, and this one is well above average. Plus, at 21 minutes per episode, it goes by FAST! The ensemble clicks quickly, and my first big laugh came when the adults are gathered around the table and Wade expresses reluctance to lie to his kids. Obviously everyone cackles at that, and Ben (played by Omar Benson Miller) says "That's all I do is lie to my kids... Drive 'em places and lie." As soon as Wade joins a dating app, he's shocked at how many matches come in. That's when his friends explain to him he's a unicorn - a nice guy and good father, not on the dating app as part of a mid-life crisis or filling time between scouting Porsches. I've watched the first six episodes and while most of them spend some time on Wade's dating life, this is generally show about adults hanging out and occasionally parenting. It works really well because of sharp writing and a great cast.
Earlier this year I wrote about Ted Lasso, still my favorite new show of 2020. The Unicorn isn't at the same level, but it shares some of the DNA that I enjoy. First, Wade is definitely a beta hero - he's an engaged parent, friends with both women and men, and not overly hung up on stereotypical gender roles. He talks to his daughters, for example, about the division of labor he and his late wife had. "She did diapers, I did vomit." He has some parenting stumbles, but not because he's ignoring his kids or indiscriminately laying down the law. He's just learning as he goes and, critically, he pays attention to what is and isn't working and trying to adjust when necessary. In addition to Wade's fatherhood adventures, the show does a great job of creating a believable found family for him and his kids. The two couples he hangs out with are Forrest and Delia (Rob Cordry and Michaela Watkins) and Ben and Michelle (Miller and Maya Lynne Robinson). The five grown-ups have believable chemistry, and a high density of jokes in any gathering.
Goggins is a kind of journeyman actor, typically playing an outwardly genial fellow with a sinister undercurrent. I'm most familiar with his work in Justified, where he was only supposed to appear in the first episode. But he was so compelling the showrunners kept him on, where he often outshone the lead role, played by Timothy Olyphant. It's nice to see his charisma can be used to portray more than just charming sociopaths with criminal tendencies. He is the center of The Unicorn, and although essentially the straight man to all the people in his orbit, he's still funny and in fact possesses pristine comic timing. He can also do a lot without saying anything - his reaction shots are stellar, particularly in E3 when he joins a support group. While he's surprised to be the only widower, he gamely joins the circle. But as the discussion evolves from just innuendo to a fairly frank discussion about sex, you see him valiantly try to keep a neutral expression, which gradually evolves to dawning horror as he realizes just how specific the fellow mourners are going to get. So far the show is almost entirely about Wade, and there's no way that would work if Goggins was any less magnetic. He's incredibly fun to watch.
Yes, he is the title character and yes, Goggins is awesome. But so far almost all of the six episodes I've watched have revolved completely around Wade and his family. The five friends in his circle are all excellent comic actors, but they get very little screen time that isn't spent talking about Wade, worrying about Wade, spying on Wade, or hanging out with Wade. So far it works, and I suppose there's only so much you can do in 20 minutes. But I'm hopeful that they'll all get to have stories of their own as the series progresses. Michaela Watkins as Delia gets the most to do, and the most (while still limited) character development. She has a funny arc in E5 when she and Forrest are forced to run the snack bar at the soccer game. As a pediatrician, she's horrified at what's being served and gets quite a few snarky lines out around it. But so far the rest of the excellent cast hasn't gotten any truly specific character traits and I'm looking forward to seeing them rounded out a bit more.
Overall though, The Unicorn hits its stride from the start, and as each episode ended I found I was quick to click "next episode". There are 18 episodes in S1, and S2 has started airing on CBS. As 2020 continues to be a challenge, I am very appreciative of entertainment about people who like and take care of each other. The fact that they are often hilarious while doing so is an excellent bonus.
CBS, Thursdays at 9:30 EST