Perfect Harmony is Glee in a Southern church choir. It's Sister Act with Bradley Whitford instead of Whoopi Goldberg. It's a one-man Schitt's Creek, but worse. The new NBC sitcom comes ready-made with enough familiar elements to presumably keep people coming back, but so far it's a little more "biscuit in a can" than "fresh, hot diner biscuit." Let's see some original recipes, Perfect Harmony! I'm done talking about biscuits now.
The first thing Perfect Harmony has to recover from is its jarring opening scene, which introduces Arthur Cochran (Whitford) at the end of his rope. His wife, Jean, has died. He's also recently resigned from his job as chair of Princeton's music department because apparently he was the kind of professor who likes to throw chairs. ("This is a generation of delicate snowflakes. And terrible chair duckers," Arthur says, which is the sort of thing NBC is probably hoping will endear him to Baby Boomers in the heartland.) Arthur is drunk in his car in his wife's small Kentucky hometown, and, the show makes clear, he is contemplating killing himself. Nothing about this is taken seriously by Perfect Harmony or its characters, which lends a show that's supposed to be heartwarming a surprisingly hollow feeling from minute one.
And that is literally just minute one -- the pilot swerves abruptly from Arthur's emotional crisis to his Sister Act Phase. His car is parked in front of a church; determined not to let an off-key choir practice be the last thing he hears, Arthur barges into the church, insults everyone, and passes out, which is all the setup the show needs to introduce him as the choir's best hope at getting their act together. His voice lessons are reluctant at first, but when Arthur realizes that the ragtag bunch at Second First Church of the Cumberlands ("Get your first second helping of the Lord," the sign says) is competing against the megachurch that denied his wife a plot in their graveyard, he finds a reason to care: spite.
The pilot settles down after Arthur is given his motivation. He briefly gets kicked out (of the job no one is paying him to do) by diner waitress Ginny (Anna Camp) when he gets too cavalier about the choir's personal lives. But he makes amends in time for the big competition, where Second First Church goes full Glee by mashing up the "Hallelujah" chorus and "Eye of the Tiger." It's no Sister Act, but the mashup is super basic in a way I think this choir would find very cool, so I'll allow it. At the end of the performance, Ginny's son, Cash (Spencer Allport), pays tribute to Arthur's wife and Arthur sputters, "It's about damn time, Jean," and I was a little bit moved! This is the power of Bradley Whitford, who goes a long way toward selling this show by barreling through it with his shoulders at his ears.
But Perfect Harmony is going to have to do more work to flesh out this community. The show gets in one solid joke about college sports culture in the South, as Ginny talks up Princeton: "Outside of basketball they're actually considered a good school." (I worked at a summer camp in North Carolina; one of my campers asked me if Boston College was a community college.) But in general, its idea of the South is a little stale: heavy on accents, light on culture. It isn't a stereotype that says anything new. Even the church, with its denomination-free name, is just a flat backdrop for singing; Perfect Harmony doesn't seem to care yet about the influence churches have in small towns or what religion means to these people.
If the show is going to find its heart, it's going to have to do exactly what Arthur still has to do: find more respect for the choir. At this point, the characters are collections of quirks more than they are people. Ginny is caught between the husband who won't divorce her, Wayne (Will Greenberg), and the lovestruck Dwayne (Geno Segers). (To the show's credit, Ginny doesn't seem interested in being an object in anyone's love triangle.) Reverend Jax (Rizwan Manji) was raised by missionaries and only knows most pop culture through his parents' didactic lens. (Glee is "the TV show about glee clubs called Being Gay Makes High School Hard.") Tymberlee Hill, playing a woman whose name is apparently Adams Adams, gets the only laugh-out-loud line in the pilot with a well-timed bleep. ("The f--- you say?") But so far she falls into the tired "sassy black woman" category of comic relief. It isn't a great sign that I had to learn her name from the show's website.
The most interesting character in the world of Perfect Harmony is the late Jean Cochran, who follows the Trudy Monk tradition of Dead Wives Who Made Their Husbands More Fun. The show's most poignant details are reserved for Jean and Arthur's relationship: She liked butterflies; they whistled "Eye of the Tiger" to find each other in crowds. If Perfect Harmony could extend that tenderness to the rest of its ensemble, it would go a long way toward helping the sitcom find itself. Second First Church didn't win the choir competition, but it did win Most Improved. Here's to Perfect Harmony doing the same.
Perfect Harmony airs Thursdays at 8:30/7:30c on NBC.