If you miss having a steady influx of mid-budget family comedies in the multiplex, consider “The Unicorn” an instant fix to your absent “Instant Family.” Like “Single Parents” on ABC (and, arguably, “Bob’s Burgers” on Fox), the new CBS sitcom starring Walton Goggins aims for the heart of modern, middle-aged parents — not the same folks who fall for the CBS brand of fast-food shows like “Man with a Plan” and “Bob Hearts Abishola,” but the ones who want to believe their comfort food is still good for them. With a stylish setting, a stellar cast, and a premiere episode that respects its central character (more than the title does, at least), “The Unicorn” is just the type of series that’ll make parents happy they don’t have to drive to the theater for their dinner-and-a-show date night.
Wade (Goggins) has been going, going, going since his wife died a year ago. With two little girls to raise, a mortgage to pay, and a demanding job in contracting, Wade pushed his grief aside for the betterment of those around him — but now he’s about gone. His home is a zoo (dogs on the counters and brownies for dinner), his personal life is dominated by dad-hood (soccer games or sleepovers), and now his friends are worried about him.
This is when “The Unicorn” starts, and choosing this precise moment is the first smart move from co-creators and executive producers Bill Martin and Mike Schiff (“3rd Rock From the Sun”). By starting the show one year after Wade’s wife died, they can transition easier to the fun stuff — dating, mainly — without forcing it on their leading man before he’s ready. Better yet, they don’t let that transition take place off-screen. They want you to see Wade’s very real grief hit him like a ton of bricks, keeping things grounded, and then let his friends step in with honest, much-needed encouragement.
Handled badly, “The Unicorn” would’ve felt like Delia (Michaela Watkins), Forrest (Rob Corddry), Ben (Omar Miller), and Michelle (Maya Lynne Robinson) pushed their widower friend to get back out there way too early — as if they’re only saying that because they’re on a sitcom and dating is what you do to find the funny. As is, the pilot lets Wade be shellshocked, bummed out, and nervous: the very traits you’d expect in this dude.
To help keep things lively, the aforementioned support system is stacked with excellent comedians. Corddry is fresh off an inexplicably endearing run on HBO’s “Ballers” (his character did some baaaad stuff) and keeps his hot streak going. Miller co-starred on the same show and, from their easy back-and-forth here, it’s hard to believe they were rarely in scenes together. Toss in a bonafide star like Watkins — “Casual,” “Trophy Wife,” “Transparent,” need we go on? — and this supporting cast is ready to inject every single scene with an extra dose of laughs.
Goggins, usually seen as an eccentric villain (“Justified,” “Vice Principals,” “The Righteous Gemstones”), is refreshing in his easy demeanor here. The veteran character actor knows how to hit punchlines, beef up a joke, and put an extra spin on an awkward situation, but he doesn’t overdo it here. Goggins wisely trusts himself to carry the show as the straight man, and he’s got enough charisma and talent to do just that.
So what’s the problem? Nothing that can’t be overcome, and fast. Through three episodes, the biggest challenge facing “The Unicorn” is its title. For those who missed the premiere, the reason Wade is denoted as such is because he’s “an elusive creature all single women are looking for” — a mature man sans baggage. He’s not having a mid-life crisis, but he is middle-aged. He’s not trapped in arrested development, but he’s down for a good time. He’s not divorced, but he’s unafraid of a serious relationship. Wade is a good dad with a job and no obvious problems, so he’s a unicorn on the dating scene.
Obviously, that’s a bit of a stretch. Plenty of people would be wary of dating a guy whose wife died — “Sex and the City” even tackled the pros and cons of such a “catch” in the episode, “Four Women and a Funeral” — so Wade isn’t exempt from the baggage of anyone else trying to date in their late 30s or 40s. But “The Unicorn” isn’t all that dedicated to its label. Wade ditches it in the first episode, changing his dating profile designation from “widowed” to “single” so he can avoid pity dates. If the show follows suit, it could develop into a great feel-good comedy on modern middle-aged life. The cast flexes its chemistry early and often; the follow-up episode is another smarter-than-your-average-CBS-show dive into Wade’s emotional state; the story can flourish as the supporting characters get further developed, and they forget the weird, unfortunately eponymous unicorn-designation.
I can already say I’ll watch every episode CBS orders of “The Unicorn” — Watkins, Goggins, and Corddry guaranteed that much — but I’m a TV addict with a job to do. While it’s already a great go-to for an easy date night, if the series can maximize the magic of its cast, who knows? Maybe the cool new batch of parents feel better for bingeing three episodes than splurging on tickets to see John Cena stand in for Mark Wahlberg. (Just kidding — this group would never fall for Cena.)
“The Unicorn” airs new episodes Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. ET on CBS.