"Dads," a new multicamera, laugh-track sitcom produced by Seth MacFarlane that premieres this week, has a very sweet opening credit sequence. As a strummy song with lyrics like "Daddy took me to the zoo" plays, sepia-colored photographs accumulate on screen of fathers doing adorable things with their young sons. It is the most misleading credit sequence I have ever seen. "Dads," a show about two annoying grown men's extremely fraught and contentious relationships with their two unbearable fathers, is sourer than fermented lemonade, and that's before it turns acrid with the taste of casual racism. If, in this new, subpar TV season, describing a show as one of its "best" is not that complimentary, describing a show as one of its worst means something special: "Dads" is the worst new comedy in quite some time.
Giovanni Ribisi and Seth Green star as Warner and Eli, friends who run a video game company together. (Their hit game is "Kill Hitler," one of the show's very few decent jokes.) Warner is preppy and neurotic. He's married with children and wears a tie to the office. Warner's father, Crawford (Martin Mull), has moved in with his son, having lost all of his money in a series of bad investments. But his ego is still intact. He walks around Warner's house like he owns it, naked and making a mess, because Warner cannot bear to confront him. Warner tells his wife that yelling at his dad is like yelling at a golden retriever, but it shouldn't be that hard to scold a golden retriever who's an oblivious narcissist leaving his junk all over the house. Eli, a grungy beardo who rocks T-shirts at work, teases Warner about his relationship with Crawford with smug satisfaction. Eli and his dad, David (Peter Riegert), who divorced Eli's mom when Eli was 5, have a more confrontational style, in which they are barely nice to each other. It works, because David's far away. But when David comes to visit, in short order he has Eli as worked up as Crawford has Warner.
Both fathers have a common ancestor: Archie Bunker. David is crotchety and stubborn and just a little less racist than Crawford. Crawford shows up at the office and scuttles a business deal when he screams, before a group of Chinese investors, "The Chinese are a lovely and honorable people, but you can't trust them! There's a reason Shanghai is a verb!" David mistakes Warner's wife, Camilla (Vanessa Lachey), for a maid, just because she is Latina.
For a show to pull off this kind of character, it helps to make clear that it does not share his worldview — that it wants the audience to laugh at how racist the racist is being and not just laugh racistly. "Dads" fails catastrophically on this count because the two guys who should be rolling their eyes or, more realistically, panicking about all the dumb things their dads are saying, are too busy being racist themselves, though it's not clear the writers know just how questionably the boys are behaving. For that business meeting with the Chinese investors, Warner and Eli have their employee Veronica (Brenda Song) dress up like a "sexy Asian" so she can tee-hee provocatively at their prospective clients, which is the same kind of fresh satire found on Pax Dickinson's Twitter feed and ends up helping the guys' business quite a bit. The episode ends with some family bonding: the two sons, their two dads, and Veronica joking about how small Asian men's penises are.
Fox knows that "Dads" is problematic. At the Television Critics Association press tour this past August, Fox chairman Kevin Reilly pleaded with critics not to judge the show based only on the first episode. "Here's a thing about 'Dads' that I really ask you to put in context. That's a pilot," he said. "You know the lineage of these writers. They come out of 'Family Guy.' They are the best writers. These guys are going to try to test a lot of boundaries. They are going to try to be equal-opportunity offenders." This term, "equal opportunity offender," only comes up in the context of shows that are not funny. It sounds a lot less acceptable when you translate it into what it really means: "racist and belittling and obnoxious to everyone and everything," as if comedy, unlike people, should not be discerning. "Dads" would be much better if it were an unequal opportunity offender, aimed at deserving targets, like, to name just four, the insufferable, mindlessly bigoted, poorly behaved guys at its center.