The most conventional-looking sitcom to come along in a while, Superior Donuts is actually an unconventional show. And one, it needs to be added, that ought to be funnier than it is. Judd Hirsch stars as Arthur, the grumpy owner of a Chicago doughnut shop. In the premiere, airing Thursday on CBS, Arthur hires an enthusiastic young man named Franco (Jermaine Fowler) to help him. Regular customers include a cop played by Katey Sagal in the kind of supporting role I’d have thought Sons of Anarchy would have vaulted her well beyond. Maybe she liked the cast and signed on for fun?
Arthur takes great pride in his old-fashioned establishment (no Wi-Fi; a jukebox that doesn’t work) and in his old-fashioned doughnuts — including, natch, old-fashioneds, as well as “fresh maple creams.” In contrast, Franco is eager to innovate. By the show’s second episode, he’s experimenting with serving sriracha-flavored doughnuts, which Arthur thinks is insane, but which prove to be a big customer hit.
The idea is to set up a generational comedy, where the old guy learns from the young guy and vice versa. But a couple of things make Superior Donuts — which is based on a play by writer-actor Tracy Letts (August: Osage County, Homeland) — different. For one thing, Hirsch, who’ll forever be remembered for his role in Taxi, is an experienced sitcom veteran who, in the episodes I’ve seen, is inexplicably marginalized in the series, almost pushed off to the side, to make way for others. Chief among these is the Franco character, who is black, and the show makes race a topic.
When Franco walks over to a wall to show Sagal’s police-officer character a painting, he stops himself to say, “I must really trust you — I just turned my back on a cop.” The context for this punchline is a very conventional — even throwback — sort of sitcom: filmed in front of a studio audience, with a doughnut-shop set that reminded me of nothing so much as the diner on the 1976-85 sitcom Alice. Therefore, the jokes about Franco’s race — and the ethnicity of Arthur’s next-door-business neighbor, Fawz, played by the Iranian-American actor Maz Jobrani — seem heightened in emphasis. When Sagal’s Officer Randy says sharply to a wisecracking Franco, “Don’t make me plant drugs on you!” it carries a sting. It takes all of Fowler’s charm — which is considerable and energetic — to keep the joking from turning gravely serious.
Most of the time, Superior Donuts is stuffed with very conventional ingredients — jokes about cronuts (Arthur hates ’em), millennials (Arthur hates ’em), and Whole Foods (Franco hates it — he used to work there, and refers to the store as a “greedy-ass corporation”). The very funny David Keochner (Anchorman, The Office) plays a very unfunny character named Tush. The show would seem to exhaust all possible doughnut jokes within the first two episodes, unless the writers are going to come up with more variations than they’ve already used about doughnuts-as-vaginas and powdered-sugar-as-cocaine. Superior Donuts feels like the kind of sitcom that would have struck audiences as a cozy place to visit every week if it had premiered in the days before cable and streaming. As it is, it feels at once odd and stale.
Superior Donuts airs Thursday at 8:30 p.m. and then moves to its regular time period, Mondays at 9 p.m., on CBS.