'Life in Pieces': Why You Should Be Watching This Smart Family Sitcom

·Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment

As its rookie season proceeds, CBS’s Life in Pieces has become a tighter, funnier, more confident sitcom, as can be seen on Thursday night’s episode, “Tattoo Valentine Guitar Pregnant.” It’s one of the best examples yet of how the show tells four separate stories while also keeping its large cast connected in an intricately clever way.

I’ll summarize Thursday’s four story-lines quickly. In “Tattoo,” Dan Bakkedahl’s Tim gets inked to demonstrate his Valentine’s Day love for wife Heather (Betsy Brandt), but something goes wrong in the spelling of the message. (Naughty, naughty, guest star tattooist Kat Von D.) In “Valentine,” Thomas Sadowski’s Matt tries to make a last-minute dinner reservation for him and girlfriend Colleen (Angelique Cabral). In “Guitar,” teen Tyler (Niall Cunningham) buys an expensive guitar to serenade his girlfriend, Clementine (Hunter King), with a cameo by Josh Groban. And in “Pregnant,” Colin Hanks’s Greg and Zoe Lister-Jones’s Jen struggle with the decision as to whether to have a second child.

And all that isn’t even including the appearances of the heads of this extended family, Dianne Wiest and James Brolin as Joan and John Short. Now, as conceived by creator Justin Adler, Life in Pieces is one tricky piece of machinery for a half-hour show that’s really 20-some minutes plus commercials. I know — Modern Family also juggles multiple story lines every week extremely well. I’m not minimizing Family’s accomplishment; rather, I’m saying that Pieces is off to a good start in a way that is distinctly different, never borrowing from or ripping off what Modern Family does.

Pieces is very good at making each of its story modules work independently, while also taking care to work in a character or two from the other plotlines to create a united whole. It works as well as it does because of the diverse skills of the cast. Colin Hanks has proven to be an excellent physical comedian; seeing him twist himself into pretzel shapes while trying to sleep on a small sofa is very funny. By contrast, Lister-Jones has worked up one of the best deadpan-comedy deliveries in current primetime.

I’m happy for Betsy Brandt that she’s found such a good post-Breaking Bad role — she plays off Bakkedahl perfectly, while the latter, who’s recently been so good as a total S.O.B. on Veep, is an excellently doofus husband, his comic timing transcending any of the clichés of that kind of role.

I’m especially glad to see how well-drawn Wiest and Brolin’s characters are. Too often, the older figures in sitcoms these days are reduced to ageist stereotypes — the aging baby-boomers clueless to technology and all the cool stuff the kids are up to these days. Not so on this show, and Wiest and Brolin seem more than comfortable here.

I could go on through the rest of the cast, but I’ll stop and just say that you should be watching Life In Pieces; it’s doing well, given the boost it gets from ratings-buster The Big Bang Theory, but Pieces could use more of its own following. And if you’re not a Big Bang Theory fan, this tonally-very-different show is well worth giving a chance.

Life in Pieces airs Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. on CBS.