The model for FOX’s “Welcome to Flatch”—which premieres both on network on March 17th, and on Hulu, where seven episodes will drop that same day—is pretty obvious. Flatch, Ohio feels just over the hill from Pawnee, Indiana, the setting of NBC’s beloved “Parks and Recreation.” But this mockumentary doesn’t center the men and women trying to make their smalltown community better but those just trying to get from one day to the next as residents of a place with two restaurants, “one with a menu.” The problem is that the tone for this kind of thing can be incredibly difficult to manage. Is “Welcome to Flatch” mocking people who live in small towns or embracing their idiosyncrasies? After screening five episodes, I’m afraid that the answer feels too often like the former, and that this is a show made by people who have never lived anywhere near a heartland town like Flatch and probably wouldn’t visit there if you paid them.
Every episode opens with this intro graphic: “Recent studies show that Americans long for a simpler life in small towns. To explore these communities, FOX sent a documentary crew to spend time with the citizens of Flatch, Ohio. Population 1,526.” Based on the U.K. sitcom “This Country,” “Welcome to Flatch” centers cousins Kelly Mallet (Holmes) and Lloyd “Shrub” Mallet (Sam Straley), who try to make the most of every dull day in Ohio, whether it’s tormenting the town’s bus driver or messing with the woman who runs the historical society, Nadine Garcia-Parney (Taylor Ortega). The prize possession of the society? An outhouse.
It’s that kind of joke that keeps surfacing in “Welcome to Flatch,” a show that creator Jenny Bicks and executive producer/pilot director Paul Feig would certainly say is done with a spirit of loving mockery. And yet the show is constantly circling back to cheap jokes about small towns like the opening episode’s skillet-throwing contest or easy jabs at religion and even journalism through characters like Father Joe (Seann William Scott) and the editor of the town paper Cheryl Peterson (the great Aya Cash of "You're the Worst" and "The Boys"). It reminds one of how nuanced the humor was on "Parks and Rec" every time that it's not here. The problem is that it's a show of Andy Dwyers instead of one with a diverse, varied ensemble.
If there's anything promising about “Welcome to Flatch” it's that the show works much better when it veers away from the broad jokes about the heartland of the country and gives the people some room to breathe. The character-driven stuff between Shrub and Kelly that comes out of left field and doesn’t feel easy can be very funny, largely because Holmes and Straley are giving it their all. When Kelly and Shrub sing a song about the time that Shrub actually got to touch a bra it has the kind of lovable, naïve playfulness that could happen in small or big towns. And one would presume that the writers of “Welcome to Flatch” can only make so many jokes that sound like discarded Jeff Foxworthy routines before allowing performers like Cash and Scott to dig into something more three-dimensional. I’m just not sure anyone will still be in town when they do.
Five episodes screened for review.