By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
8:30 AM CDT, September 25, 2013
Imperfect, impossible and irascible dads are in heavy rotation this fall, with comedic paternal roles drawing big-ticket names including Robin Williams, Michael J. Fox, Peter Riegert and now James Caan.
Caan is the costar of ABC's "Back in the Game," which, if subjected to DNA testing, might find its parenthood traced to Clint Eastwood's "The Trouble With the Curve" and various "Bad News Bears" renditions. Which is more promising than perhaps it sounds.
Terry Gannon Jr. (Maggie Lawson) is a fair and lovely yet newly single mother who has just moved back in with her old man, Terry Sr., a.k.a. "The Cannon" (Caan.) Although he made her into an all-star college ballplayer, the Cannon, also apparently a single parent, was less than perfect.
And in many ways the chemistry between Lawson and Caan — they make child abandonment actually seem funny — is "Back in the Game's" biggest strength. Her: "You moved me to Mexico and left me with the team mascot." Him: "I told you, I was in jail."
We meet the pair as Terry Jr. is taking her young son Danny (Griffin Gluck, winner of this season's Most Appealing Child Actor award) to try out for the local baseball league. Which is run by a Greek chorus of Mean and Vicariously-Living Dads led by Dick (Ben Koldyke), whose name is used far too often in the pilot as a cheap joke. Despite his athletic heritage, Danny is a terrible ballplayer. He doesn't care all that much; he just wants to be on the team to impress a girl.
Danny's not the only non-athlete. Terry is quickly befriended by Lulu Lovette ("Being Human's" Lenora Crichlow, the show's second biggest strength) a flask-toting wealthy widow who has clearly seen "The Natural" a few times. She shows up to tryouts dressed completely in white. When neither of their sons makes the league, Lulu offers to foot the bill for a new team and Terry soon finds herself coaching a requisite assortment of misfit players.
Again, more promising than it sounds.
Caan, in high beer-guzzling grizzle, owns the screen whenever he's on it, which is often. Like that other iconic mess of a baseball coach, Walter Matthau, all Caan has to do is walk across the room and you laugh.
Here he offers a master class in abuse-with-a-twinkle. Like many of the other new dads this season, he says terrible things for which he refuses to apologize. But beneath the crust lurks a sweet if not quite soft center.
Lawson, to her very great credit, holds her own in every scene. Her character believes her father always put baseball ahead of her, but she too is able to voice her anger without seeming shrill or bitter.
"Remember when I got my first period?" she says. "You told me to walk it off."
"They didn't have the Internet back then," he answers with a shrug. Then, instead of the kind of mean-spirited mocking that has become alarmingly de rigueur, the audience gets a picture of a single parent of an opposite-sex child completely at a loss. Something Terry is experiencing herself.
There is no doubt in subsequent episodes that we'll see Caan abusing Terry and the team of misfits. There is also no doubt that he will help them become better players, and better people — and they will have the same effect on him. He and his daughter will grow closer and form an increasingly perfect if non-traditional family, while Lulu leads Terry on all manner of mad single-gal adventures.
But in this case familiarity breeds more comfort than contempt. Caan and Lawson spark when they spar, Crichlow's Lulu is a delight as is Gluck's Danny. And even Dick, though burdened with far too much sexual innuendo, has a few good moments.
Like I said, promising. Very promising.
'Back in the Game'
When: 8:30 p.m. Wednesday
Rating: TV-PG-DL (may be unsuitable for young children with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)
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