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‘Duncanville’ Review: Amy Poehler’s Clever Fox Comedy Is Still Finding Its Footing

Another year, another Fox animated sitcom about a white working-class family — though this one has potential.

DUNCANVILLE: In hopes of getting a promotion, Annie tries to fill her parking ticket quota for the month. But when she finds a dead body in an illegally parked car, the “real” police quickly cut her out. She then ropes Duncan into her own investigation: tracking down a criminal selling counterfeit goods to school kids. Meanwhile, Jack tries to be a cool dad, but just ends up making Kimberly and Jing violently ill in the “Undacuva Mutha” episode of DUNCANVILLE airing Sunday, March 1 (8:30-9:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. DUNCANVILLE © 2020 by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, Universal Animation Studios LLC and Fox Media LLC.

Amy Poehler voices mother and son in “Duncanville”

© 2020 by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, Universal Animation Studios LLC and Fox Media LLC

For the last three decades, Fox animated comedies have been modeled after the network’s biggest hit. So by now, we’ve seen dozens of “Simpsons” variations — where a working-class family faces fresh problems every week, and satirize certain trends or parody select pieces of pop culture while solving them. The classic sitcom structure (emphasis on classic) also means most of these shows follow the family patriarch, (while prominently featuring the other three-to-six family members), most are geared toward adults (but carry morally sound messaging), and all of them focus on straight, white couples at their center.

Well, almost all of them. Fox’s latest batch of adult animated adventures evolve a few of the brand’s long-held staples. Last year’s newcomer “Bless the Harts,” for instance, focuses more on the Hart family matriarchs, Jenny (voiced by Kristen Wiig) and her mother Betty (Maya Rudolph), than their respective husband and son-in-law, Wayne (Ike Barinholz). Such a subtle but hugely welcome shift in perspective likely stems from creator Emily Spivey, the first woman to helm a Fox animated comedy in nearly two decades, and the distinctions she’s added — including a Southern setting, an imaginary Jesus character (Kumail Nanjiani), and developing an adult, mother-daughter relationship — have earned the series a Season 2 pickup as well as its own identity within the Sunday night animation block.

Now, “Duncanville” is trying to do the same. Created by Amy Poehler, Mike Scully, and Julie Thacker-Scully, the latest adult animated comedy fits the Fox mold, but it’s too early to tell if it can stand out on its own. Filled with good ideas, appealing designs, and a strong cast, the half-hour comedy has enough potential to warrant keeping track of, while we wait to see how its rounded edges are sharpened into a singular vision.

In what may be the make or break choice of the series, Poehler voices both the eponymous lead Duncan, a 15-year-old slacker whose ambition remains trapped in his head, and Annie, a parking enforcement officer and Duncan’s mother. Rounding out the family of five are Jack (Ty Burrell), a classic rock enthusiast whose day job as a plumber is, through two episodes, only made known by the sign on his truck; Kimberly (Riki Lindhome), Duncan’s 12-year-old sister who’s getting a jump on her teenage years by boiling over with emotions 24/7; last but not least, there’s Jing (Joy Osmanski), a 6-year-old who’s too young to know it’s inappropriate to be in love with your older brother.

DUNCANVILLE: Duncan’s friends replace him with Kimberly in their online video game tournament, so he joins the opposition to betray them and humiliate Kimberly in the “Red Head Redemption” episode of DUNCANVILLE airing Sunday, Feb 23 (8:30-9:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. DUNCANVILLE © 2020 by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, Universal Animation Studios LLC and Fox Media LLC.

“Duncanville”

© 2020 by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, Universal Animation Studios LLC and Fox Media LLC

Duncan’s friends also take up a good chunk of the first two episodes, including Mia (Rashida Jones), who’s using her job delivering pizzas to infiltrate and destroy the evil pie-making empie-re, “Papa Mom’s.” Clearly, she’s the the cool one of the group, so she’s obviously Duncan’s crush. The lovable doofus can’t quite match her on the activism side — he has a hard time staying active at all — but his good heart and best intentions have you rooting for Duncan to catch up, you know, eventually.

If you can’t tell from these already truncated story descriptions, the first two episodes of “Duncanville” are jam-packed. Aside from setting up semi-permanent relationship dynamics, the pilot can’t even close all the small plots it starts. (Duncan’s first challenge is learning to drive, and we never really find out if he doesn’t want to drive, if he’s scared to drive, or if he’s just too lazy to learn.) Also, too many characters pop up for any of them to be considered well-defined, and the show’s tone is as topsy-turvy as the rules guiding its world.

Duncan’s daydreams are an early fixture. Some are explained, either as dreams or hallucinations, which gives the impression “Duncanville” is set in a semi-realistic, “Bob’s Burgers”-type universe — weird things can happen, but Duncan isn’t going to mention Elmo and then have a conversation with the puppet in the next scene. And yet at least one joke feels more akin to the “Family Guy” house style, where inexplicable encounters happen all the time.

DUNCANVILLE: In hopes of getting a promotion, Annie tries to fill her parking ticket quota for the month. But when she finds a dead body in an illegally parked car, the “real” police quickly cut her out. She then ropes Duncan into her own investigation: tracking down a criminal selling counterfeit goods to school kids. Meanwhile, Jack tries to be a cool dad, but just ends up making Kimberly and Jing violently ill in the “Undacuva Mutha” episode of DUNCANVILLE airing Sunday, March 1 (8:30-9:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. DUNCANVILLE © 2020 by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, Universal Animation Studios LLC and Fox Media LLC.

“Duncanville”

© 2020 by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, Universal Animation Studios LLC and Fox Media LLC

While confusing when trying to get a read on “Duncanville,” this kind of thing doesn’t really matter in the long run — plenty of shows need a season or two to figure out what defines their best self. The question becomes, “What does ‘Duncanville’ want to be?” Fox clearly wants the show to fit in with its classic animation counterparts; sure, it needs a strong enough identity to grow its own fanbase, but enough of a shared identity to hold onto viewers who like “The Simpsons” and “Bob’s Burgers” (which bookend “Duncanville’s” premiere). Fox is building a homogeneous content block on Sunday nights, as it has for decades, and “Duncanville” will support that model so long as the family remains the focal point.

What will be curious to watch as “Duncanville” progresses is who emerges as the distinct voice of the show. Two episodes aren’t enough to offer a definitive choice, but there seems to be fresher, more intriguing material for Annie, Duncan’s mom, than the show’s eponymous teen. Will “Duncanville” see a shift in perspective as the writers are drawn to different characters (like a reverse of when “Bob’s Burgers” started offering more kid-centric A-plots)? Or will it find its footing in the original direction?

So take the trip to “Duncanville” if you’re so inclined, just know the town is still growing — hopefully, for the better.

Grade: B-

“Duncanville” premieres Sunday, February 16 at 8:30 p.m. ET on Fox.

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