For 43 years, Tom and Carol Miller built a life together.
It wasn't an ideal life, of course. No life is. But through thick and thin, through sickness and health, the couple worked and played and laughed and cried together, raising two kids along the way. They knew each other's habits and carped about each other's foibles and acted like—well, an old married couple.
Then one day, son Nathan announces to the family that he's gotten a divorce—a declaration of freedom that sounds so fantastic, apparently, that Tom decides to follow suit. He promptly gives Carol the ol' heave-ho and embarks on a new quest for golden-age happiness without the proverbial ball and chain.
Or perhaps he would … if he didn't see Carol quite so much. He's living with daughter Debbie, you see, and Carol's staying with Nathan. So their paths cross, well, pretty much all the time. Old habits, it would seem, die hard.
Such is the setup of the season's saddest sitcom.
It's not supposed to be sad. CBS' The Millers feels like it's trying very hard to be Everybody Loves Raymond—after that crabby couple across the street goes through a bitter breakup. But it feels like the makers of The Millers sorta missed the sneaky charm of Raymond: Underneath all the "You're driving me nuts!" part, even constantly quibbling parents Marie and Frank loved and cared about each other. That's what made the dysfunction bearable to watch, really.
Tom and Carol would seem to be zombified versions of Frank and Marie, who, instead of sticking with each other, sever their sacred "'til death" union because of … what? Irreconcilable differences? And if their differences are so irreconcilable, why do they spend so much time together now? In the context of The Millers, divorce seems merely a pretext to chuckle at oldsters preparing to enter the dating pool again—a topic I thought had been well covered nearly 30 years ago by The Golden Girls.
The result is a deeply cynical statement about marriage—where 43 years of commitment is easy to scrap in exchange for some ethereal chance at pleasure, where a lifelong bond should be discarded when it begins to bind, like a pair of scratchy socks.
I think the writers had hoped to make this a funny comedy with a little heart. And we do see them making attempts at being winsome for a few seconds here and there. But the heart never has time to start beating—as it always gets recklessly trampled by the next jaded joke. And perhaps some could forgive even that if the jokes were funny.
Alas, The Millers falls short there, too, spending far more time making caustic commentary on the "weird stuff" old folks do rather than laughing along with them. Tom does sit on the toilet a lot with his pants down around the ankles, and perhaps this passes for humor in some cultures. And the premiere episode is obsessed with farts, as if that's never been done. Characters parade out the obligatory sexual double entendres, apparently hoping that they might use a few variations that folks haven't heard before.
There are, of course, sitcoms on television more salacious than this one. But few are so unintentionally tragic.
"The Phone Upgrade"
Though divorced, Carol continues tending to Tom—cooking for him, washing his clothes, taking him to the mall—because if she didn't, she says, he'd fall apart. "Without me, he's a disaster," Carol says. And, well, she's not far off. When Nathan and Debbie encourage Carol to back off, Tom promptly lights his breakfast on fire and destroys Debbie's laundry room.
The solution, Nathan believes, is to give his dad a smartphone—a device that can remind him to take his pills, keep him from getting lost and tell him to turn out the light when it's time for bed. Tom calls it "Carol 2.0" (slinging insults at the first model) and even begins to kiss it goodnight. Unfortunately, he keeps dropping it in the toilet, so Nathan returns him to Carol's loud and abrasive care.
Tom cracks jokes (at Carol's expense) about masturbation and diarrhea. Viewers see him sit on a toilet (his shirt covering critical areas). A joke about sex involves Liberace and a Fabergé egg. A gag suggests that Tom met Carol by hitting her with a car. Another involves the Tooth Fairy leaving quarters in the toilet. Debbie slaps her dad. Characters drink margaritas. They say "a‑‑" four or five times and "h‑‑‑" once.