Small-town America has been one of television's favorite subjects for years. From The Andy Griffith Show in the 1960s to Twin Peaks in the '90s to Gilmore Girls at the turn of the millennium, and then on to Parks and Recreation and, most recently, Schitt's Creek, there is no shortage of TV out there about life in a small town. Soon, Fox will add another with the debut of Welcome to Flatch on March 17 (the first seven episodes will also be released on Hulu the same day).
Inspired by the British comedy This Country, the mockumentary series hails from Jenny Bicks and is executive produced and directed by Paul Feig. Set in the small fictional Ohio town of the show's title, its premise is simple: A film crew has been sent to document life in small-town America, and they stumble upon Flatch, a town with two restaurants (one with menus!) and more than its fair share of eccentric townspeople, urban legends, and unique traditions.
Our entry points and tour guides are best friends and cousins Kelly (newcomer Holmes) and Shrub (Sam Straley), who allow the camera crew to follow them and document everything from Kelly's various entrepreneurial enterprises to Shrub's attempts to woo his crush. There's not much to do in a town of approximately 1,500 people, which means having a documentary crew trail them as they make their own fun is pretty exciting. But like most of the small towns depicted on television, Flatch is full of big personalities. Krystal Smith plays Mandy, a force of nature who has fan favorite written all over her. You're the Worst star Aya Cash breathes life into Cheryl, the editor of the local paper, who moved to Flatch from Minneapolis with her now ex-boyfriend, the town reverend, Father Joe (Seann William Scott). There's also Taylor Ortega as Nadine, Kelly's childhood best friend-turned-enemy, who runs the historical society, and Justin Linville as Mickey, who believes he's Shrub's best friend because they share a birthday.
Because of its filming style and setting, Welcome to Flatch naturally invites comparison to Parks and Recreation — especially since your average American is less likely to be familiar with This Country. There's some of Parks' Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari) in Kelly, who is always cooking up new business ventures, just like there's a bit of Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) in Cheryl, who projects a similar optimism. Although she's not originally from Flatch, she begins to come to terms with living in, and even liking, the town over the course of the season.
But what's most interesting about Welcome to Flatch is its insistence on channeling its episodic stories through real-life issues that might affect people living in rural small-town America, from job loss and limited car ownership to insufficient access to reliable internet (something that came up early in the pandemic as schools switched to remote learning). The show isn't interested in solving these problems — it's not even thinking about them too deeply — but it does explore how the characters react to them. The result is a funny show about a town that not only feels like it could be a real place but also a place people might actually like living.
Too often, TV writers become caught up in the wacky or eccentric aspects of small-town life and shows lose all sense of realism. (No disrespect to Hart of Dixie, a heartwarming dramedy about a New York City doctor relocating to small-town Alabama, but watching the CW series often felt like experiencing a fever dream.) Flatch works by staying grounded. It isn't reinventing the wheel — the internet-focused episode features a fairly predictable plot about an older man being catfished — and it doesn't have the depth and nuance of a show like Friday Night Lights, but by channeling its specific brand of comedy through relatable experiences, the show becomes a similar love letter to the community at its heart, while rooting even its more ridiculous storylines in the real world.
It helps that the writers are dedicated to nailing the Ohio specifics, from references to Cincinnati's famous (infamous?) Skyline Chili to Kelly's rotating collection of Columbus Crew shirts and jerseys (similar to This Country's Kerry repping Swindon Town FC). If there's one thing that's off, though, it's the absence of the scarlet and gray of the Buckeyes and paraphernalia for the Cincinnati Bengals (it appears the series is set in Southwestern Ohio, which means you're unlikely to run into many Cleveland Browns fans). But that could be a result of licensing deals (The Ohio State University is fiercely protective of its logos and the use of its name) and is likely something only Ohioans will notice. And as the only professional sports team in the state with more than one championship this century, the Crew honestly deserves the spotlight.
The Midwest has been a popular setting for on-screen stories over the years, but it's also become shorthand for an "uncultured" and "undesirable" place to live. Most of the time, characters can't escape fast enough, while those who don't have the means to leave are depicted as trapped in a dead-end life. For some, that obviously does ring true. But it's a tired stereotype that disregards plenty of other aspects to life in that part of America, like the reality that many people choose to stay in the Midwest, or the fact that the region is home to several major cities, like Chicago, Columbus, and Indianapolis. It's refreshing to see a take on the region that doesn't immediately invite scorn and that is able to poke fun while still appreciating and celebrating both Ohio and the Midwest. It's abundantly clear the show was made by people who are either from the region (Feig is from Michigan, while Smith and Straley are both from Ohio) or at least understand its culture, not to mention its geography. So while Welcome to Flatch isn't doing anything novel, its dedication to portraying a more authentic version of small-town life in the Midwest makes it a fine addition to a growing slate of shows that have reinvigorated the broadcast comedy.
Premieres: Thursday, March 17 at 9:30/8:30c on Fox. Episodes 1-7 available on Hulu on March 17 and will air Thursdays on Fox
Who's in it: Holmes, Sam Straley, Aya Cash, Seann William Scott, Krystal Smith, Taylor Ortega, Justin Linville
Who's behind it: Jenny Bicks (EP/writer), Paul Feig (EP/director)
For fans of: Parks and Recreation, This Country, Schitt's Creek
How many episodes we watched: 7