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Monday, October 31st, 2011

Jonah Hill's Allen Gregory: Kinda Funny, Kinda Mean

Last night's pilot episode of Allen Gregory, FOX's new animated comedy about a precocious seven-year-old, begins with the announcement that Allen Gregory (Jonah Hill) is being forced by one of his dads to return to elementary school so that his other dad can get a job. In addition to his dads, we also meet AG's adopted Cambodian sister Julie and her dorky friends, who let a boy regularly knock the books and lunch trays out of their hands because that makes him their "best guy friend" (ding ding ding favorite joke of the pilot).

We watch as Allen Gregory is embarrassed at the hands of the impressive Joel Zadak, popular kid and times-table champion ("It's like, 8 times 6, 48, it's not a big deal"), who evidently doesn't watch Charlie Rose, and as he fails to win the heart of the gigantic school principal (not to mention the hairy-armed Will-Forte-voiced superintendent). He returns home, defeated, before consultation with various members of his support system (including the towel guy and ex-Hollywood legend working at his health club) rallies his spirits to return to school and spin his story.

All in all, a pretty standard pilot plot, and some promising supporting characters. But the real strength of Allen Gregory depends on the teeny-tiny biceps of its title character. That AG is a seven-year-old is external to him: an inconvenient plot point, not a part of his character. Instead, the character is a smooth-talking arrogant charmer who sets lunches; a Hollywood executive, basically. He comes across through Jonah Hill's voice acting, which is full of the speedy asides and condescending interjections that provide most of the show's humor.

Is the show funny beyond Jonah Hill's deeply nasal speed-talking? Even the central relationships are kind of one-note so far, with Allen Gregory listening to his doting gay father and unfairly blaming his straight-man straight father (and his sister) for everything. He manipulates his teacher and his one friend, and he's in love with the principal. It is a pilot, so most of its one-note humor can be kind of forgiven, or at least withheld from judgment, until we see more.

But the show feels kind of mean so far. It's a show about convincing people of things that maybe aren't true, whether it's that you don't belong in elementary school or that you're actually gay and should leave your wife and kids. By the end of the episode, I got suspicious that the show was trying to Allen Gregory me, where "to Allen Gregory" means "to talk really fast at to convince someone that what you're saying is good."

And the reason the argument is unconvincing is that we don't actually care about Allen Gregory that much. We briefly feel for him when he poops himself and rushes out of school (who hasn't been there, amirite), but his problems are resolved so quickly by his parents and the superintendent that we barely have time to connect with him in his struggle. And if Allen Gregory doesn't have any heart to him, it won't be very fun to watch him no matter how fast he talks.