‘Life in Pieces’ Review: ‘Modern Family’ Imitator Is Less Than the Sum of its Parts

Complicated structure can’t save shaky CBS comedy

There’s really nothing as archaic, in the year 2015, as a sitcom that explicitly states its thesis. “Life is about these moments, these pieces of time,” James Brolin intones near the end of CBS’ banal new series “Life in Pieces,” premiering Sept. 21. “These slices of life that flash by, but they stay in your heart forever.” As he speaks, a montage flicks by of his three adult children and their relationships and families. But that montage could just as easily have been of shows that have been interred in the “Modern Family” Knockoff Memorial Mausoleum over the last eight years.

“Better With You” did a better job of examining the various stages of relationships via one family; “Love Bites” was a far superior example of interlocking mini storylines. And anyone who wanted an iconic actress playing a matriarch could have found one last season in Laurie Metcalf on “The McCarthys.” Or Margo Martindale on “The Millers.” Or Allison Janney, still garnering Emmy noms for “Mom.”

Instead, “Life In Pieces” gives audiences Brolin and Dianne Wiest (whose breathy, little girl voice would seem to posit her as the 21st-century Jean Stapleton except she’s not funny) as the parents of new father Greg (Colin Hanks); mother of three Heather (Betsy Brandt); and single Matt (Thomas Sadoski), all of whom see their lives play out in self-contained chapters every episode in one of those “slices” that “flash by.”

Among those slices are Heather’s horror that her three children are growing up too quickly (one of them being a wise-beyond-her-years daughter); the hilarious complications that accompany Matt’s dating while living with his parents; and Greg and his wife (Zoe Lister Jones) coming to terms with the effects that childbirth can have on a vagina. Eventually the family is united in the final slice of life, which finds Brolin’s patriarch presiding over his own funeral as part of his 70th birthday.

Together for the first time in the series, the utter lack of chemistry between the various siblings is suddenly revealed; their interactions have the barely suppressed contempt of feuding family members (or hastily assembled pilot castmates), not the herky-jerky, shambolic comedic rhythms that their individual chapters displayed. Separately, the Short family members are worthy of a glimpse and can garner a chuckle. Together, they’re abrasive and unlikable.

Among the numerous alleged comedic plot points that series creator Justin Adler oversaw in the pilot are: an older couple who can’t figure out how to work a TV remote; a husband who inadvertently insults his wife and is then denied sex; and a college tour that ends with a hungover teenager vomiting during the car ride home. The obvious irony of the series is that “Life in Pieces” purports to be about the small, seemingly innocuous moments that linger longest in one’s memory, while offering audiences absolutely none of those moments itself.

“Life in Pieces” premieres Monday at 8:30 p.m. on CBS.