As a spinoff of ABC’s long-running ’80s comedy “The Goldbergs,” “Schooled” had a surprisingly rough time getting greenlit by the network. Persistence eventually paid off, but unfortunately, the result isn’t worth the wait. The mildly charming but confusing show that airs Wednesday is a clear result of its long and messy path to the airwaves.
“Schooled” began as glint in co-creators Adam F. Goldberg and Marc Firek’s eyes in November 2016 when they developed the idea for the spinoff, which eventually was ordered to pilot. ABC officially passed on the pilot in May 2017, but after much urging by Goldberg, the network agreed to air it as a backdoor pilot in January 2018, midway through Season 5 as a special episode of “The Goldbergs.” The episode performed on par with the rest of the season.
Set in the 1990s, that version of “Schooled” stars Tim Meadows, reprising his role as William Penn Academy school principal John Glascott along side Bryan Callen who returns as Coach Rick Mellor. Nia Long plays Glascott’s sister, the no-nonsense Lucy, who comes to work for him as her two teenage daughters – including “X Factor” breakout contestant Rachel Crow – adjust to the new school. Although imperfect, the pilot performed well in the ratings and its weird yet upbeat storytelling showed potential for something special. Also, having another comedy with a predominantly black main cast would’ve been a welcome addition to ABC’s already inclusive lineup and a nice nod to how black comedies really came into their own in the 1990s.
Unfortunately, that is not the “Schooled” viewers eventually got. After retooling the concept from the pilot, the finalized version puts AJ Michalka front and center as grown-up alum Lainey, who couldn’t cut it as a recording artist and takes a teaching position as the school’s music teacher instead. As for Principal Glascott, his role is greatly reduced to mere mentor, and only Felicia (Crow), one of his nieces seen in the original pilot, makes the cut. Nia Long is long gone, and with her, that character who was one of the highlights of the pilot. ABC should have trusted the series’ creators more. What could’ve been an insightful and interesting comedy about a funny and caring black man in a position of authority instead becomes another vehicle for a white privileged person to bemoan their rather ordinary fate, and yet eventually become a white savior for the school.
Even if this narrative refocus weren’t problematic from a racial point of view, it doesn’t make the most sense from a “Goldbergs” standpoint either. Lainey started out as a minor character who was tweaked to make her into a viable love interest and eventual fiancee to the middle Goldberg child, Barry (Troy Gentile). The trailer for “Schooled” alone presents possible spoilers for “Goldbergs” because this season has been leading up to their wedding. Wednesday’s back-to-back airing of the original and spinoff will most likely fill in those gaps, but it’s still an odd choice to have two shows in the same universe yet set only a few years apart.
Without any knowledge of “Schooled’s” strange origin story, the first episode given for critics for review isn’t terribly engaging. Lainey is set up on a path to redemption, but she’s merely selfish and clueless. Her barbs are toothless and lack the oomph of say, Glenn Howeorton’s awful character on NBC’s “A.P. Bio,” whose development is fascinating. Meadows is serviceable but lacks true comedic moments, and Crow – who blew judges away with her big voice and even bigger personality on “The X Factor” – is reduced to a sullen, slightly rebellious student. This just feels like a missed opportunity to showcase some true talent, especially since Meadows has been killing it over on CBS All Access with the hilarious “No Activity.”
All hope is not lost, however. The first episode of a comedy can be the roughest as it tries to find its voice, the correct cast dynamic, and where to toe the line or cross it. Critics gave “Parks and Recreation” a tepid reception to its first episode and season, warmed up by Season 2, and then wholeheartedly embraced it for the remainder of its seven-season run. “Schooled” would do well to make Lainey more compelling to watch, whether it’s fleshing out past in that interim between the two shows or having her develop her art or examining her past relationships. She can’t just be the troublemakers with fashion sense who stumbles into teaching.
On the upside, Coach Mellor is given a bigger platform, and he’s delightful as the stern mentor who cares far too much. And as with “Goldbergs,” the series creator also includes real-life influences and people in his storytelling. The first episode of “Schooled” includes a charming note at the end that connects the comedy to to the real world.
As it stands, “Schooled” doesn’t offer any convincing reasons to watch other than the crossovers from an already familiar world, and the requisite ‘90s references are too lightweight to be a true vehicle for nostalgia. Like Lainey, “Schooled” is going to have to prove itself worthy, and it’s a lesson the show needs to learn quickly or risk having its lead fail at yet another career.
”Schooled” premieres on Wednesday, June at 8:30 p.m. ET, directly after “The Goldbergs.”