Believe it or not, it's been over 20 years since Topher Grace broke through as a sitcom star, playing arch, intermittently baked Eric Forman in That '70s Show. Since then, he's tried a bunch of different things: feature film leading man, pre-MCU Marvel star, Star Wars supercut editor. More recently, he's settled into more of a character-actor groove with roles in The Hot Zone and Black Mirror, but this week sees him back where he started, at the center of a network comedy. A warning, though: you may need to make like Eric and get a little high before you sample it.
In Home Economics — co-created by John Aboud and Michael Colton — Grace plays Tom, the eldest of the three Hayworth siblings. The wealthiest is also the youngest, Connor (Jimmy Tatro), who made most of his money in finance, but also had some investments pay off. Sarah (Caitlin McGee) is the middle sibling, and the least stable financially: she's a therapist who works with at-risk youth, or was, before she recently lost her job — not that she's ready to admit that to her brothers. Tom's net worth lies somewhere between his two siblings: he's a novelist whose last book tanked and who's raising three kids with his wife Marina; Marina doesn't work outside the home, so their bills are accumulating, and Tom's working up the nerve to ask Connor for a loan. But as openly envious as Sarah and Tom are of Connor's success, his life isn't as perfect as they thought.
Where the show excels is in its portrayal of the complexities of sibling relationships. Most of the time when a sitcom has multiple sibling characters in the permanent cast, the writing papers over the fact that they spend all their time together by having them mildly insult each other but otherwise just act like friends; call it the Frasier model. But Home Economics understands that people who've known each other literally all their lives have spent the duration not just learning where one another's tender spots are, but also nursing grudges about decades-old slights and competing for their parents' approval. On top of that, a three-sibling arrangement often means that alliances are constantly shifting: which two are teaming up against the unlucky third? We see all of this play out over the course of the pilot.
Home Economics also boasts a great ensemble, and their chemistry is strong from the start. Getting the balance right with Grace, McGee, and Tatro was crucial, and they definitely sell their fond but antagonistic relationships; a runner about Connor's pride in having purchased his new house from Matt Damon gets brought up enough to be tiresome before coming back around to funny again. The cast MVP may be none of the Hayworth siblings but Sasheer Zamata as Denise, Sarah's wife: a school teacher by trade who's either learned or had to develop her skills as a diplomat since marrying into the family. (As the other wife, Souza seems a bit more tentative with the comedy; even though she gets a drunk-at-a-wedding storyline in the second episode, she plays it pretty small.)
Despite all that Home Economics has going for it, however, it doesn't work — at least not based on the two episodes that were provided to critics. Jimmy Tatro as a finance bro? I mean, he's definitely a bro, but when I saw him in the promo materials for the show and realized he was the rich one, I was sure it was going to be from a fat contract as a major league baseball player or something. And while it's great that both of the non-Hayworth cast members are women of color, I don't know what we're supposed to think about their mother-in-law (Nora Dunn) calling them her "beautiful ethnic daughter-in-laws [sic]" and then yelling "cafe con leche!" at Marina over FaceTime, while Marina just tolerantly says, "Yes, Grandma, those are Spanish words." No one else comments on Mrs. Hayworth's passive racism, which isn't really a joke so much as it is a reference. See also: when the cousins arrive at Connor's and his daughter Gretchen (Shiloh Bearman) tells Sarah and Denise's daughter Shamiah (Jordyn Curet), "You have to see my dolls." Shamiah: "Cool! What are their pronouns?" Ha ha, how hilarious is it that a queer couple in the Bay Area would have taught their children about respecting people's gender identity? Later, a sequence of one-liners about the aggressive pink décor of Gretchen's playroom are paced so wrong that each just lands with a wet thud. (If the show was aiming for a Happy Endings pile-on, it fails miserably.) And while we keep hearing narration from the book that Tom is writing about himself and his siblings, his caginess about it seems excessive, and it's hard to care very much about the promised blow-up when everyone finds out.
But the show's main problem is its ill-conceived focus on money. It's one thing on a show like Superstore or The Conners, where some serious thought has clearly gone into portraying its characters' financial struggles because that's what the show is about. Despite its title, Home Economics is basically just a whinier Modern Family. Tom and Sarah could be complaining about a dying lawn or a bad haircut for all the urgency they seem to feel about their finances. And while I appreciate the attempted realism of Denise and Sarah sharing a small apartment with their two children because Bay Area real estate is expensive and two adults employed in public education and social services would not be able to afford anything bigger (though it's TV cramped; it...has a loft and a hallway), no such logic has been applied to Tom's circumstances. Tom's last novel was a failure, but were all the ones before that smash hits? Marina says she could go back to her job at "the firm" — what kind of firm? Law? Architecture? Either way, she never should have given it up if her dumb husband wasn't supplementing his fiction writing income with a tenured job teaching creative writing at Stanford, unless we're supposed to think he was a Dan Brown-sized superstar who also lost all his savings, somehow. "Look, it's a sitcom: you don't need to get that far into the weeds about where people's 1099s are coming from." Hey, I would rather be anywhere else, but Home Economics has forced me here by resting its premise on the Hayworths' various sources of income.
Home Economics could have been a solid sitcom about Connor moving back to the west coast and figuring out how to reconnect with the older siblings whose attention he always wanted; in turn, Tom and Sarah could have tried to unlearn their resentment of Connor's formerly exalted position in the family now that they're all adults. But bringing money into the proceedings does what money tends to do: it snarls everything up into a complicated, ugly mess.
Home Economics premieres on ABC April 7th at 8:30 PM ET.
Writer, editor, and snack enthusiast Tara Ariano is the co-founder of Television Without Pity and Fametracker (RIP). She co-hosts the podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This (a compulsively detailed episode-by-episode breakdown of Beverly Hills, 90210), and has contributed to New York, the New York Times magazine, Vulture, Decider, Salon, and Slate, among many others. She lives in Austin.