The Crew (Netflix) is so all-American that, during its first two minutes, a full-blown brawl is halted when The Star-spangled Banner rings out. Everyone stops throwing punches and stands with their hands on their hearts. This ultratraditional sitcom marks the return of Kevin James – Paul Blart: Mall Cop and The King of Queens – to television and is pitched squarely at your American everyman, if every man in the US were cut from the cloth of James.
His character, also named Kevin, is the boss of a relatively unsuccessful Nascar team upended when its elderly, Stetson-wearing owner retires and hands responsibility to his Ivy League-educated daughter, Catherine. It will come as a shock to no one that salt-of-the-earth Kevin butts heads with Catherine’s fancy ways and her youthfully efficient approach to business. Catherine would like the team to start winning some races and making some money; Kevin would like a quiet life and for the old, familiar ways to remain, even if that means they come in 10th place (when they have a good week).
This is mainstream stuff, in the way that Two and a Half Men is mainstream, which makes sense: The Crew’s showrunner, Jeff Lowell, was a writer for that series. It doesn’t begin to think about innovation. The supporting cast either offer a friendly ear for Kevin to grumble into, or serve as idiots for him to laugh at.
The team’s star driver is Jake, a man so lacking in brain cells that it is a wonder he can operate a car at all. He is vain and preening and wears a charm bracelet crafted by Tibetan monks. In one of the few set-ups that made me laugh, it transpires that he believes the word “monk” is short for “monkey”. Amir is the jittery sitcom nerd who likes musical theatre and whose nervous ways attract much mockery from the rest of the gang.
The Crew believes that enjoying Hamilton is a punchline, as are millennials, vegetarian meat substitutes, technological advances in motor racing and change of any kind. When one of the team’s key sponsors – a swaggering, Johnny Depp-esque figure called Rob – drops in for his annual jolly, Catherine offers to take him out.
“There’s this great Asian fusion place,” she says. “No, there’s not,” he replies. He wants to go to the bar, with the beer and the hot wings, like he always does. That is about the extent of the rest of it, until they shoot a couple of deer and someone gets chilli in their eyes.
If there were just a touch more depth here, it might get away with jokes about being confused by Instagram. The grumpy old man trope is tried and tested, after all, and has been a hit in many forms. The undemanding humour that this relies on has its place; it is just that there is a lot of it about and The Crew does little to try to make itself seem different from any of the other American workplace comedies that exist.
The Nascar backdrop offers the potential for a unique take, but take away the driver cameos, the odd bit of archive race footage and the vroom-vroom noises and it could be any sitcom, set anywhere. The new boss is the enemy, an outsider who thinks she knows best; the workers misbehave and cause trouble, but ultimately love their team and would do anything to make it work. The message, if you really scrape around to find one, is that compromise is probably a good thing. The stakes are low, the jokes are easy. It is all just … fine. Perhaps fine is what people want right now – and that is fine, too.
It is strange to see this on Netflix, though. These live-audience multi-camera series’ are a network television staple, but it is hard to imagine anyone choosing to watch multiple episodes or even the whole thing in one go, rather than sitting through a single episode simply because it is on.
Being on Netflix also exposes a small but crucial flaw in The Crew. Most shows like this come in at 22 minutes or so and air on TV with at least one advert break. It can make up for a slight premise and boost a series’ charm. Here, there is no need for such precise timing, so the episodes are closer to 30 minutes. It makes all the difference and stretches it too thin.
It is early days for The Crew, and a lot of now-classic comedies took at least a season to bed in, but this seems to lack the secret ingredient that might make you root for Kevin and the team. It is all a bit 10th place.