Marcia Gay Harden, Skylar Astin in CBS Drama  

The punny title of CBS’ So Help Me Todd is the best part of So Help Me Todd.

It’s not a great pun, mind you. But it does, in general terms, what it needs to do. It evokes altruism, and the show is about a young man helping his mother. It evokes the law, and the main character’s mother is a lawyer. It also evokes God, but that part is a bait-and-switch. Audiences thinking So Help Me Todd might be a stealth continuation of CBS’ God Friended Me will be disappointed.

So Help Me Todd

The Bottom Line

God is love, but ‘Todd’ is hard to.

Airdate: 9 p.m. Thursday, September 29 (CBS)
Cast: Marcia Gay Harden, Skylar Astin, Madeline Wise, Tristen J. Winger, Inga Schlingmann, Rosa Arredondo
Creator: Scott Prendergast

Speaking of name-based puns, the eponymous Todd’s mother’s name is Margaret, so if there isn’t an episode titled “Are You There, Todd? It’s Me, Margaret” before Christmas, we burn the whole place down. And speaking of Todds and Margarets, does anybody remember the comedy The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret? It ran on IFC for three seasons. Trust me.

Sorry. This has gone far afield before it even began, in part because So Help Me Todd isn’t a very interesting show to analyze. It’s barely interesting enough to tweet about, which is partially by design. CBS dramas, as a rule, are crafted to be half-watched while channel-surfing before bed. The network tried to aim a little bit higher a few years ago with Evil, but that show was too involving to find traction on CBS and it has moved to Paramount+, where it continues to be the best current broadcast drama that isn’t on broadcast. Anyway, even by the standard of CBS dramas intended for partial attention, So Help Me Todd is flimsy.

Skylar Astin plays Todd, a former private investigator who lost his license over his ex-partner’s misdeeds. Now stalking people accused of insurance fraud, Todd is on the outs with the aforementioned Margaret (Marcia Gay Harden). See, in the courtroom she does everything by the book. In his investigations, he’s always willing to cut a few corners. In the pilot, Todd proves his skills and his values to Margaret when he’s able to help her track down her missing husband (Mark Moses). In future episodes, they attempt to reconcile their personal and ethical differences as Todd lends Margaret a hand with legal investigations and whatnot. She has to learn to put her faith in Todd.

Created by Scott Prendergast, So Help Me Todd struggles to find a consistent tone across the three episodes sent to critics. “Dramedies” are always a challenge of balance, but you have Astin flailing and shouting like he’s in a full-on comedy, Harden going maybe 75 percent comedy and then an overall show with no appreciably comedic elements. The storyline involving Margaret’s missing husband was, apparently, Prendergast’s initial impetus for creating the series, and that personal connection is actually palpable, but then nothing from that storyline pays emotional or comedic dividends going forward. The legal cases of the week are from the straightforward disposable procedural template, though I’ll grant that they’re a hair more detailed — not to be confused with “nuanced” or “interesting” — than what the genre sometimes affords.

The cost of those detailed procedural cases is that So Help Me Todd is very, very thin as a family drama. The central conflict has to be between Todd and Margaret, but nothing in his not-quite-straight-and-narrow methodology is really all that shady or clever and nothing in her by-the-books approach is even vaguely notable, so asking the series to hinge on the reconciliation of their values is a lackluster proposition. That the two lead performances are as heightened as they are, despite how bland the storytelling is around them, just makes Astin and Harden stand out all the more — never really for the worse, but never for the better. They’re distractingly comedic in a show that isn’t sure it wants to be that, but they’ve got energy. Man plans, Todd laughs.

There’s almost no room for anything resembling an ensemble to build around them. On the family side of things, Madeline Wise — great on Single Drunk Female — plays Todd’s sister and she’s a doctor and… that’s all I’ve got. There’s a brother, but he hasn’t been seen yet and his husband (Thomas Cadrot’s Chet) has been in one episode to no purpose. There are colleagues in Margaret’s office who I was vaguely astounded appear to be cast regulars, and if I’d only seen one episode, I could at least be hopeful; after three, less so. Maybe the show will eventually find better use for Inga Schlingmann as an attorney who’s also Todd’s ex and Tristen J. Winger as the firm’s neat-freak head of research, but so far they just add somewhat annoying friction around Todd.

So Help Me Todd is set in Portland, a city that TV shows frequently fetishize in various quirky, progressive ways. Food trucks! Microbrews! Putting a bird on things! I don’t know if So Help Me Todd deserves credit for rendering Portland — played with minimal disguising by Vancouver — completely indistinct, but the series looks and feels like it could be set anywhere, with storylines that could take place anywhere. The show and its characters have no visual or personal style and even when things are aiming for humor, there’s no real voice to the humor (though I guess I’ll admit that I chuckled at a joke reference to Alicia Florrick, the main character in another of the rare CBS dramas to aspire to anything more than baseline disposability).

The procedural wants to reference The Good Wife, but it has no interest in being The Good Wife. Whether a couple of decent leads, a punny title and plotlines that can be followed even if you’re doing two or three other things while watching will be enough for CBS’ audience? Well, with Todd, all things are possible.

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