In an era dominated by full-season releases, how is anyone expected to judge a new series by just one episode? Gone are the days when a pilot’s charms or lack thereof dictate the series’ future — today, many audiences wait to sample until there are enough episodes available to fill a Saturday afternoon, or they’re alerted by a trusted source (professional or otherwise) that, “Hey, this show got good!”
The weekly release model persists — on broadcast, cable, and even streaming (shout-out to Hulu) — but even those network executives are waiting to see who tunes in over the first three days, seven days, weeks, and even months of a season before deciding whether or not to renew or cancel.
But with “Bless This Mess,” we’re all in the same boat: Despite the best efforts of everyone at ABC, only the pilot was available for screening prior to the series’ Tuesday night debut. It’s a solid 22 minutes of television, offering exactly what’s been promised since Elizabeth Meriwether and Lake Bell’s sitcom earned a green light, from the promising ensemble to the tried-and-true premise. But after less than a half-hour of setup, there’s no way of saying if the first season is richer or poorer than the sum of its parts.
Bell, who wrote and directed the pilot after co-creating the series with Meriwether, plays Rio, a born-and-bred New Yorker who leaves her successful therapist practice behind to move to Nebraska with her husband, Mike (Dax Shepard). The newlywed couple were bestowed a working farm by one of Mike’s deceased relatives, and they jump at the chance to escape the busy, crowded, noisy Big Apple life and reinvent themselves as hardworking, blue collar, dirt-in-their-fingernails Americans.
This, of course, is a subtle riff on “Green Acres,” as well as the many similar comedies repeating its urban riches to rural rags trajectory. But “Bless This Mess” makes a few key updates: Instead of the husband, Oliver Wendell Douglas, giving up his profitable practice to fulfill his lifelong dream of being a farmer, Mike is a music writer who [spoiler alert for those who haven’t seen the pilot] has been laid off and only suggests the switch to farming in order to cover his ass. It’s his wife, Rio, who makes the active choice to ditch her good job — a decision that will hopefully be better fleshed out in future episodes.
What’s so hard to believe about a professional therapist dropping everything to become a farmer? Nothing really, until they actually arrive at the farm. You see, Mike and Rio do that thing only sitcom characters (and very silly real people) do: They move to a new place without ever visiting that place first. Upon arrival, the working farm is more of a deserted dump. The door is off its hinges. They fall through the floor right after stepping across the threshold, but they need to fix the hole in the roof first because a storm is comin’.
That’s what their invasive neighbor, Rudy (the wonderful Ed Begley Jr.), claims anyway, when he takes a leak in their bathroom as the couple showers. Rudy is quiet, terse, and to the point, but he’s also open to Rio’s suggestions after first claiming only Jews need therapy. (How far the series is willing to go in painting rural Americans as various forms of ignorant will also lend to its success or undoing.) He’s also quite smitten with Constance (Pam Grier), the town sheriff and one of its merchants. Their polite interplay is like catnip for any private Midwesterners all too familiar with bottling up their feelings, and how the writers choose to develop their relationships is another important aspect of moving forward.
So here’s what we know: Lake Bell is an extremely talented writer, director, and actress. There are signs of it here (the episode zips along, covering a lot of ground without making the exposition into a chore), but we knew that before the pilot, too. Same goes for Dax Shepard’s likable buffoonery. (The way he uses a hammer is truly otherworldly). It’s also clear that, when done well, the “Green Acres” setup is ripe for all sorts of comedy — physical (like Rio’s fear of cows) and topical (like the aforementioned differences between farmers and city folk).
But after one episode, shot long ago and likely adjusted in unanticipated new directions based on ABC executives’ reception of it, “Bless This Mess” is similar to its couple: as likely to crash and burn as it is to thrive. Will Rio and Mike make it as farmers? Will they bond with their new community and find fulfillment in their new professions? Will they live and laugh along the way? The odds seem to be in their favor, and, as far as the show goes, we’re rooting for them. But a final assessment will be doled out later.
“Bless This Mess” airs new episodes Tuesdays at 9:30 p.m. ET on ABC.