Ever since Arrested Development died, Fox’s comedies have taken a definite turn for the crass. Wariness was a natural response when Rob Corddry left The Daily Show last summer to star in a Fox sitcom, and while his brash fake-news persona is thankfully evident in The Winner, so is an unexpected sweetness that makes it the network’s best live-action comedy of the moment, though somewhat by default (does anybody actually like ’Til Death?).
Debuting with two episodes this week, The Winner is a veritable catalog of proven Fox devices: It’s about an aging schlub who lives with his parents ( la Get a Life), it’s set in the not-too-distant past (like That ’70s Show), and it affectionately spoofs The Wonder Years (as have The Simpsons and Family Guy). Riffing on Daniel Stern’s narration for the Nixon-era nostalgiafest, The Winner begins with Glen Abbott (Corddry) as the wealthiest man in Buffalo, explaining how he was a complete layabout until 1994, the annus mirabilis in which he turned 32 and his childhood crush Alison (Erinn Hayes) and her son Josh (Keir Gilchrist) moved in across the street.
The pilot leans too heavily on ironic cracks about the era, but the writers soon get a bead on the relationship between Glen and Josh, whose emotional maturity is equivalent despite a 19-year age difference. Later episodes offer about what you’d expect from the premise (Josh and Glen get shot down by their respective dream girls before they can even make a move; Glen inadvertently dates a gay man because of their shared devotion to the Bills), but each episode marks a legitimate step forward for Glen, and the way everything builds toward a future goal is more than enough to distinguish The Winner in a genre that thrives on inertia. — Andrew Johnston