Having a star’s name in the title of a television show is a statement of intent. More than just guaranteeing that the titular actor will appear, it invokes the actor’s most popular or characteristic performances and promises us more of the same. Because of this, Dr. Ken has a strange uphill battle to acceptance. Ken Jeong is a talented comedic actor, but up until now he’s also always been a supporting character. He’s the person who steals the scene or two he’s in, then goes away while everyone else keeps the story moving. But you can’t base a show around an over-the-top character bit, so there’s something a bit disingenuous about the show’s title, as the Ken Jeong on display as the lead in a TV show can hardly be the same as the Ken Jeong from movies or even Community. Maybe traditional network comedy is what Jeong has always wanted to do but hasn’t been able to, but either way, audience expectations are in a weird place, wanting something over-the-top like an Adult Swim show, despite Dr. Ken airing on Friday nights on ABC. Suffice to say, early reactions to the show have not been kind.
But it’s important to watch a show without expectations about what it should be, and instead to take in what it actually is. What we have on our hands is an extremely traditional three-camera sitcom, with a laugh track and a set that barely even tries to look like reality. Ken Jeong plays a physician and his wife is a therapist, and they have two bright young kids. He also has quirky co-workers, including Dave Foley doing his best job at a sort of Jimmy James-esque boss and the extremely talented Jonathan Slavin playing his usual brand of dopey friend. The pacing and plotting feel straight out of the late ‘80s or early ‘90s, as if Arrested Development and other single-camera sitcoms had never even been invented. The acting tends towards hammy, overplaying jokes so that the audience can’t miss them, and the show literally begins with a proctology gag. At first glance, it’s the perfect embodiment of the network sitcom, and I say that as a person who used to review Modern Family.
But a show’s form has little to do with its quality—I referencedNewsRadio earlier, and that show also had all the trappings of a traditional, sitcom yet is one of the greatest comedies ever made. What’s more surprising about Dr. Ken is that it’s actually a pretty good sitcom, at least in its pilot, despite its reliance on many of the form’s lousiest tropes. The first episode focuses on a handful of very typical, not-terribly interesting storylines, but executes each of them in enjoyable ways. Ken’s daughter is getting a driver’s license, so he’s scared about that. He made a patient angry and they’re threatening to sue their HMO for malpractice. His son is going to do a mime routine in front of his school, thereby… doing a mime routine in front of a school. None of these are particularly unique or interesting, but what the show gets right is its characters and jokes, which are the things that really matter.
Ken Jeong, Suzy Nakamura who plays his wife Allison, and most of the cast (Kate Simses’ performance as Julie notwithstanding) do a great job immediately creating fun characters who can bounce lines off of each other. It’s an obviously veteran group of actors with impeccable timing, and even when you know that a joke is coming because of the form’s pacing, that’s unimportant because each member of the cast takes their tepid dialogue and absolutely nails it. One of the things a sitcom really needs is a cast who’s fun to be around, and Dr. Ken does this immediately and with complete confidence. The show’s writing could certainly use some improvement, but the fact is that if it does improve, this cast will hit it out of the park.
Let’s get back to that writing, though, which is the biggest question at hand. While the plot is about as lame as television can get, the actual events are entertaining and the jokes, while featuring quite a few meh sitcom staples, also have plenty of wonderfully weird moments. For instance, Ken asking around for his daughter Molly at a rave ends up with him arrested for drug solicitation. When in jail, he tells an inmate that he was arrested for naming his daughter after a controlled substance, at which point the man immediately begins talking about how beautiful the name Cocaine is. For every couple minutes of broad comedy filler, there was something insightful or strange. It’s almost like the writers agreed that they needed to work within a hackneyed form in order to get the show greenlit, but once they did that there was nothing to stop them from putting in some material they’d actually enjoy.
I don’t want to oversell Dr. Ken, because it’s far from brilliant. But it’s also a surprisingly decent beginning, especially since pilots are almost always broader and, frankly, just plain worse than normal episodes of sitcoms. Whether or not the show has the ambition to become something more than this, it’s difficult to guess. Maybe Ken Jeong and company are content to just make a traditional sitcom with a few inspired moments an episode for as long as the show goes, or maybe they want to use this format as a springboard for something more interesting. At the moment, the first episode at least tells us that it’s worth keeping an eye on, and that if the writers are interested in raising their game a bit, the cast is certainly ready to put on a great show.