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The Great Indoors Is More Than Just a Millennials vs. Gen X Comedy

CBS' new sitcom can look like a one-note joke but there's more under the surface.

Malcolm Venable

In the first episode of The Great Indoors, Eddie (Chris Williams) is tending bar when adventure writer Jack (Joel McHale), the CBS sitcom's hero, admits he got in trouble at work for insulting a Gen Y underling.

"When are millennials' feelings not hurt?" Jack's buddy Eddie says, trying to cheer him up. Eddie's dig prompts someone else to cry out, "Hey!"

"See?" Eddie says.

The bit illustrates the show's central premise -- Gen X and Gen Y are vastly different, and it's really evident in Jack's office, where he supervises younger employees -- but the moment is ironic too. That's because when the show debuted at the Television Critics Association gathering this summer, some millennials who'd seen it were vocally displeased. The Great Indoors, they said, portrayed Gen Y as entitled, sheltered, tech-obsessed, oblivious to the "real" world and too sensitive. Of course, people saying their feelings were hurt for being depicted as too sensitive only reinforces the point, a fact that wasn't lost on its executive producers (Mike Gibbons, Chris Harris and Andy Ackerman) or star Joel McHale.

The Great Indoors creator defends depictions of millennials

"That was the best thing that could have ever happened," McHale said in an interview with TVGuide.com earlier this month. The moment was great publicity, he said, but at the same time not reflective of the show's true nature. "Once you get into the other episodes and see all the characters dealing with each other... The show is not a withering social commentary," he said, but you know, a sitcom!

Joel McHale as Jack and Chris Williams as Eddie, The Great Indoors

Eddie (Chris Williams) comforts his buddy Jack (Joel McHale) on The Great Indoors.

Cliff Lipson/CBS

That said, it does dig into some cultural truths, and it does a good job at it, too. The Great Indoors finds Jack navigating a new gig at the magazine Outdoor Limits; he's stunned to learn from founder Roland (Stephen Fry) that he'll be doing less of the out-in-the-field romping around he's used to but instead managing a crew of young'uns he's got at least 10, maybe 15 years on. No, that's not that much older, but, due to cultural and technological shifts we're all keenly aware of, Jack feels older than he actually is -- especially when he learns that the magazine is going all-digital. He also finds out he'll be reporting to Brooke (Susannah Fielding) -- Roland's daughter and someone he once hooked up with years ago.

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The Great Indoors pries open the differences between Gen X and Gen Y and turns them into Grand Canyon-sized terrain for exploration. Jokes are made at both generations' expense and since much of said differences have to do with technology, there's a lot of "Gosh, people born before 1978 sure don't know how to use the Internet, LOL!" humor here. Jack doesn't believe the job tittle "Online Content Curator" is a real thing. His website is laughably outdated. Jack doesn't have Instagram. Jack says he's going to start faxing his resume. Sometimes, jokes might clear an actual landing space on the screen just to be sure we're still following the thread.

The Great Indoors

The Great Indoors.

Darren Michaels/CBS

Beyond the pithy one-liners and laugh track though, there's actually some redeeming and provocative stuff happening. It's easy to hone in on the sometimes grating "Millennials do this and older people do this" construct but the show's slightly more subtle insights present some interesting social commentary. It's clever to use an outdoor/adventure magazine to frame the workplace comedy, since we're in an era where connecting with sunlight and nature seems like something you need to justify to binge-watching friends or employers measuring every minute of productivity.

Jack's discovery that his magazine is now all-digital is too familiar to writers, advertisers, illustrators, designers, editors and others who've seen the publishing industry tank and mutate into something new. The anxiety Jack covers with sarcasm and snark voices the panic and existential paralysis people over 35 (let alone those over 50) experience in a new economy where it seems that everything that once demanded specialized skill and complex thought can now be done in a click.

Shaun Brown as Mason, The Great Indoors

Shaun Brown as Mason, The Great Indoors

Darren Michaels/CBS

For all their sensitivity, the millennials show they can quickly rally around an idea, find solutions and use technology for greater good. You're sure to have a slight headache after being bludgeoned over the head with the jokes in these early episodes, but there's promise that as time progresses, compelling insights and questions will continue to emerge. Mason (Shaun Brown) for example, is deliberately ambiguous about his sexual orientation -- a trait that makes a point often unexplored.

"It questions social norms of what you think a black man should look like," Brown told TVGuide.com. He consulted with the writers early on; like other parts of the story, Mason's identity became a collaborative process. "Jack needs to know [Mason's sexual orientation] because I don't fit his mold of what masculinity is, with my handkerchief and my style and my hair. We leave it open like, 'Why do you need to know? It's a workplace and none of your business.'" Fair point.

Actors rarely get to exert influence over their characters' arc, another way The Great Indoors is unique. Christine Ko, who plays social-media expert Emma, said her character wasn't written as she is now. "She was a flirtatious blonde. When I read it, I was like, 'No one seems to be challenging Jack -- he's just making fun of everyone.'" She too spoke with producers, and then Emma went from "being sassy and flirty to super dry and honest," she said. Not only are the minority characters not vacant stereotypes, the people playing them had ownership in their stories. "We're trying to reflect the real world," said Ko, who described herself as very much a millennial. "I like the idea that everyone's equal and we're inclusive. There's less judgment, and I like that. We should be proud of being millennials."

The Great Indoors may initially seem like one joke -- mainly because that joke is the loudest and most obvious. But there's the promise of something layered to come, something that, at its best, will get us to confront the generalizations we make about the "other" generation, and the limitations we put on ourselves.

(Disclaimer: TVGuide.com is owned by CBS.)

The Great Indoors airs Thursdays at 8:30/7:30 on CBS.