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CBS’s Superior Donuts serves up nothing but holes

The TV series based on Tracy Letts’s Steppenwolf stage comedy is a corn-syrup north-side minstrel show.

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Judd Hirsch and Jermaine Fowler in Superior Donuts - CBS
  • CBS
  • Judd Hirsch and Jermaine Fowler in Superior Donuts

In Robert Altman's 1992 film The Player, a satirical noir thriller about a Hollywood movie studio exec who literally gets away with murder, a minor subplot involves two hustling screenwriters pitching a dark-spirited "independent" picture called Habeas Corpus. It's a gritty drama about a woman wrongly accused of murder who still fries in the gas chamber, but only after falling in love with her prosecuting attorney, who tragically then manages to produce evidence of her innocence moments after her death. The writers are dreadfully serious about the intended integrity of the project, including the depressing, justiceless ending in which our innocent heroine dies and the most important hallmark of anti-Tinsel Town authenticity, on which they insist: "No stars on this project. We're going out on a limb on one," one of them asserts.

The other interrupts him. "Like unknown stage actors . . . Or maybe somebody English, like what's-his-name."

By the end of The Player we see how their gritty little opus has finally panned out as a small audience watches the final scene of the finished film in a private screening room. Strapped to a chair in a dowdy prison gown and underscored by a lush Hollywood orchestra, breathless, about-to-die Julia Roberts gasps and quivers. The gas pellets have been dropped into water and hiss menacingly as poison clouds fill the air. Just then, the prosecuting attorney—a casually rugged Bruce Willis—shoots the glass of the chamber with a rifle, rips off Julia's restraints, pulls her from the chair, and carries her limp body to safety. After a moment, she revives in his embrace and they kiss. Fin.

The joke, of course, is that a self-serious artist who truly believes that his tough, virtuous, complicated vision could emerge unscathed and uncorrupted from the Hollywood machine is more likely than not to end up with a silly Julia Roberts tearjerker on his hands. For fans of the original Steppenwolf and Broadway productions of Tracy Letts's play August: Osage County, and specifically fans of the nationally "unknown stage actors" who were supplanted by Julia Roberts and her celebrity friends in the maudlin, middling 2013 movie version of A:OC, this once seemingly generic joke was suddenly very specifically on all of us.

That said, I'd easily still take half a dozen Meryl Streeps in fright wigs over the latest stage-to-screen monstrosity Letts and Steppenwolf hath inadvertently wrought, namely CBS's 22-minute midseason replacement situation comedy Superior Donuts, which finished its eight-episode first-season run on March 20 and, as reported today, will return for a second season. Just as the Pulitzer-winning script of A:OC is now taught in college playwriting classes around the country, so, I'd argue, should Letts's 2008 stage play Superior Donuts and at least four episodes of the wretched network afterbirth it spawned. This would impress the archetype of the sellout even on young minds, and could be a thing of legitimate value.

Were Superior Donuts not set in an actual neighborhood of Chicago, filmed on a soundstage in southern California, and projected onto TV screens throughout Trump country, the situation at hand might be slightly less infuriating. But this corn-syrup north-side minstrel show is so simpleminded and crude in its representation of Chicago that, at the risk of excessive cruelty, President Trump might very well enjoy it. After all, he could probably follow the dopey story lines, the hot mom from Married . . . With Children is surprisingly still a 9, and, of course, it would reinforce his single-minded view of the city as, in a word, BAD! In fact, this series is so directly (if accidentally) aimed at the president's line of vision and diminished attention span that I surmise the only reason Trump hasn't already tweeted about it is that he only watches channels he suspects he'll be on.

TV's Superior Donuts still takes place in a rapidly gentrifying Uptown, though the use of exterior shots of the #50 bus in Wicker Park and green screens of phony storefronts help Chicago-savvy viewers calculate precisely how few fucks the producers have to give. Just as in Letts's stage comedy, the central protagonist is an aging boomer cracker hippie and doughnut shop proprietor (Judd Hirsch) who slowly learns to get hip to the times and down with the jive when he hires a black millennial kid (Jermaine Fowler) to work in his store. Around them spin a small handful of colorful neighborhood characters, including some mouthy cops and other regular customers who teach us weekly, digestible lessons about urban coexistence.

Superior Donuts, you'll remember, is a situation comedy, and here's a little sample of the humorous writing: "It's so weird the Cubs are so great now, huh? . . . Thank God for the Bulls, the Bears, and Rahm Emanuel."

Did reading this dead-on, hyperspecific knee-slapping zinger of a joke just make you LOL, Chicago? Because if not, don't sweat it. CBS's Superior Donuts has a laugh track to do all the laughing for you! This canned sound effect will go a long way to making the series seem more like a comedy if, like I did, you find yourself watching it in stony, stoic silence.

The above rip-snorting, razor-sharp Rahmbo jab kicked off a recent episode called "The Amazing Racists," the plot of which involved the millennial clerk getting stopped and frisked by an Uptown cop who's friendly with the fuzz who hang in the doughnut shop. The shop then hosts a town hall dialogue for harassed citizens and harried police to air their mutual grievances, arbitrated by a cloying white-girl undergrad snowflake who seems to represent both Uptown gentrifiers and anyone who might be watching this show in Nebraska. This is followed by a second stop-and-frisk mistaken identity incident involving the same kid, which results in the hippie proprietor telling his cool young employee not to wear a hoodie if he wants to avoid cops. Needless to say, though, by the end literally everything is resolved. There's even an apology and promise from the bad-apple cop to stop harassing the jokingly proclaimed "Black Bart Simpson."

And here are the actual, honest-to-Christ final lines of the episode.

Hippie doughnut guy: You know I'm actually glad this happened, because I think I learned a lot today.

Cool millennial employee: Yeah, I think we all did. A'ight, bring it in.

[They hug.]

Zany dry cleaning proprietor from next door, observing two men in an embrace: Gay!

Fin.

At this point it bears noting that though the opening credits proclaim this slow-drip flaming Malort enema to be "based on the play by Tracy Letts," the Tony Award winner himself has nothing to do with the series. Much as Neil Simon had no control over Oscar and Felix's long television career as oddball roommates since he didn't hold the TV rights to The Odd Couple, Letts holds no sway over the lives of the Uptown denizens he created. So if after several episodes of seeing the nerdy black cop—whose other character trait is that he's a corrupt Chicagoan—taking bribes and playing loose with the law—the President tweets "Superior Donuts, even though it's on failing CBS, totally proves that I am RIGHT about Chicago being corrupt and bad. Gay!" don't bark up Letts's tree, I guess.

And in consolation to the many Chicago actors who workshopped and performed in the original productions of this play when it was en route to its final destination: while it sucks that you obviously never had a shot at playing these characters for real money, at least you also won't forever be associated with this wholesale betrayal of north-side culture. (As for the local publications who took the targeted PR bait and mentioned the authentic Chicago stage roots of exactly one of the cast members in preview coverage of Donuts, y'all failed to mention that David Koechner last appeared regularly on a Second City stage in 1994, the same year Hootie & the Blowfish debuted Cracked Rear View.)

Another powerful Chicagoan in the theater that, like Letts, has nothing to do with CBS's Donuts is Letts's proudest champion in the local media, the Chicago Tribune's Chris Jones. Jones dutifully chronicled the play's every step toward this final product. A year ago this week, in fact, he gleefully tweeted a photo from the set of the pilot (which then included actors who have since been replaced). His silence on the series since its February premiere is particularly curious given that a month before the Oscars Jones spilled considerable ink and prose as purple as a Grimace stool sample over Steppenwolf ensemble member Tarell Alvin McCraney, soon to win an Oscar for the Moonlight screenplay, despite the facts that Steppenwolf had nothing to do with Moonlight or McCraney's play on which it's based, and that, apart from his college years, McCraney's never really been a Chicagoan. Yet the first-ever major television series based on a Steppenwolf play has yet to warrant even a peep—let alone a critical appraisal—from Jones. Whither Dr. J?

Letts has a new work beginning previews at Steppenwolf next week, Linda Vista, that, at least for now, seems to star only members of the ensemble and Chicago-based actors, including Letts himself, and with an excellent cast and the fine director Dexter Bullard at the helm, there's no reason not to look forward to it. But in the meantime, hopefully Letts's Superior Donuts will eventually get the authentic Chicago enshrinement it richly deserves: a dessert item named after it at the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company on Navy Pier.   v

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