After an inexplicable, only-on-NBC delay of five weeks, Council of Dads returns tonight with its second episode. And good news, this promising family drama from the network behind This Is Us also re-airs the pilot episode tonight, for those who missed it in March (or completely forgot what it was about in the intervening weeks).
I’ve now seen the show's first three episodes, enough time to get on a first-name basis with everyone in the show’s sprawling multicultural cast. SPOILER ALERT: showrunner Joan Rater talked with me about the big reveal in the pilot, so if you haven’t watched that episode yet, maybe read my who’s who in Council of Dads piece instead and come back to this later.
Council of Dads is loosely based on a memoir by Bruce Feiler, who came up with a very practical response after learning that he had a life-threatening illness: He approached several male friends to serve as his proxies in the event he died. Likewise, in the pilot of this show, Scott (played by Tom Everett Scott) asks three men from different corners of his life to step in should his advanced-stage cancer prove fatal. Which, as we learned in the pilot, it does. (Feiler, who wrote the book, is very much alive and a producer on the show. I told you it was loosely based.)
As the second episode opens, it is one year later and Scott’s council is fraying at the edges. The men aren’t getting along and Scott’s still-grieving widow Robin (Sarah Wayne Callies) is having second thoughts about three substitute dads always dropping in on the family. She believes, quite rightly, that no one can take Scott’s place. On the other hand, she has five racially mixed children ranging in age from infancy to young adult, a demanding job as a hospital ob-gyn, and a restaurant whose majority owner is now deceased, although it still has an able captain in Anthony (Clive Standen), one of the “council of dads.”
Like all family dramas, Council of Dads is trusting viewers to grow attached to its characters while following their various backstories. Not surprisingly, the next two episodes revolve around the two men in this large ensemble who are indisputably its breakout characters.
First there’s Larry, a no-nonsense recovering alcoholic played by the dependably great Michael O’Neill. There’s already a rhythm to Larry’s character — just when his rigid martinet style is about to suck all the oxygen out of the room, something comes along to pierce his bubble and reveal his sympathetic and generous side. It’s not as clunky as it sounds. As we discover how destructive Larry’s drinking years were, it’s understandable that in sobriety he would be ferocious about discipline while also intent on making amends — if not with his original family, then with this one that he’s adopted.
The other breakout character is Oliver, played by J. August Richards. As Scott’s oncologist during the final stages of his disease, Oliver is privy to some secrets that will soon be revealed. He’s good at concealing, it turns out, having been a closeted gay black man in the deep South, where he was a standout college football player. (Richards himself just came out.) Oliver’s complicated past will be a source of tension with Robin, his good friend and colleague at the hospital, as they debate whether Theo (Emjay Anthony) should play football.
So far, I’m in. The stories are relatable and the dialogue, if predictably TV-ish at times, gets at big issues about loss and what really matters in life — topics I think we can all relate to a little more closely these days. Rater and her husband and co-producer Tony Phelan ran a season of Grey’s Anatomy, and that experience is already paying dividends in the personal and professional relationship between the two doctors, Robin and Oliver.
In other ways — the casting, the dialogue, the pacing, the relentless Windham Hill-quality soundtrack — Council of Dads feels like a fly trap designed to capture as many This Is Us viewers as possible. At the TV critics’ winter tour in California, I asked Joan Rater the most obvious question: Will we see Scott again? After all, This Is Us wouldn’t be This Is Us without all the jumping back and forth in time. Will we have flashbacks here?
“We’re not going to have flashbacks,” Rater promised. “The show is very much in the present, with this family moving forward from this very devastating event. We’ll get to know Scott through the dads, through Michele, through the kids.” Michele is Michele Weaver, who plays Scott’s oldest, a biracial daughter he had before marrying Robin.
But Rater also dangled this tantalizing tease: “We’ll get to see Tom Everett Scott again this season in the most amazing episode of all time — but it won’t be a flashback episode.” Can’t wait.
The second episode of Council of Dads airs on NBC tonight at 10:00 PM ET, preceded by a rebroadcast of the pilot at 9:00 PM ET. Moving forward, new episodes will air Thursdays at 8.
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.