Nasim Pedrad pulls off a bold, bizarre comedic feat in “Chad,” the new single-camera comedy from TBS. She fully immerses herself into her portrayal of a 14-year-old boy, without the story ever winking that the character is being played by a talented comedian (who happened to honed her skills with similar characters on “Saturday Night Live”). Hulu’s comedy series “Pen15” did something similar, with Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine playing versions of their middle school selves, creating excellent and honest awkwardness with their arrested development performance art. But Pedrad raises the stakes by playing a boy, one who can be especially pesky or create even more chaos wherever they go. It’s “Leave It to Beaver” or even “Napoleon Dynamite” but with Pedrad as the lead, and it’s best when it’s a loving parody of being a teenage boy.
Chad is a prototypical ninth grade male, with his oversized turtle shell backpack, his dreams of popularity, and complete lack of self-awareness. Series creator Pedrad and the show’s writers lean into this a great deal, and make it so that while Chad already looks kind of alien with Pedrad playing him, he’s also hands-down the strangest kid in his high school. He doesn’t know how to reach his goal of coolness (which would mean the acceptance of highly popular classmate Reid [Thomas Barbusca]), but Chad thinks he can just make it happen. In the first episode, he randomly goes up to some people and says that he had sex over the summer. It’s a complete lie, and it ends up blowing up in his face when he feels the pressure of living up to the new reputation. While reflecting the ridiculousness of youth, “Chad” often has a funny way of throwing a wrench into his latest scheme for acceptance.
High school is chaos, and the most charming episodes of “Chad” match that energy. The strongest episodes in its eight-episode first season have a certain danger to their character-based comedy, like “Sword”—in which Chad is gifted a sword and foolishly brings it to school—and the finale, in which Chad becomes popular when everyone thinks he’s the target of a hate crime. They’re a strong complement to the acerbic one-liners that make for the series’ biggest laughs, parts of a droll sense of humor that’s more exciting when it feels like it’s written for knowing adults instead of fellow Chads. (The show’s primary age demographic is a bit uncertain.)
“Chad” is also about the people who surround Pedrad’s character, and that’s how the sweetness often makes its mark. He has very endearing conversations with his slightly more self-aware friend Peter (Jake Ryan, the scene-stealer from “Eighth Grade”) or frenemy Denise (Alexa Loo), and during his scenes at home with his mother Naz (Saba Homayoon), Uncle Hamid (Paul Chahidi) and younger sister Niki (Ella Mika). Chad remains the biggest headache in their lives, the goofy rapscallion that he is, but they are all formidable opposites against his manic energy. And they all often help guide him in his problems relating to identity, of embracing who he is as a Persian-American boy, and in figuring out what interests he wants to have. There’s an entire, relatively touching episode in which Chad embraces the grandiosity of K-Pop.
With the scenarios not entirely pushing too far into surprising wackiness, Pedrad starts to settle into “Chad” midway through, and her performance makes sense in its own way. But when the honest parody of her performance goes into the background, you’re left with a comedy about shrill teenage behavior, and one that doesn’t point out much that’s different about Chad as a kid. He’s tone-deaf (especially with other races), clueless, sometimes too smart for his own good, extremely dorky, etc. Chad’s also a screeching teen, who calls his for his daddy or throws types of hissy fits that everyone deflects like dealing with a kindergartener. The series wants to find a great deal of meaning in how a particularly childish teenage boy sees the world, and it’s a wholesome but hit-and-miss objective.
While sometimes punchy and sharp, the comedy writing in “Chad” sometimes falls into the traps of this preciousness, giving Pedrad’s character moments more fit for canned laughter than the type of edgy coming-of-age story it also wants to be. This usually appears in long-winded dialogue, like this overwrought zinger from a scene mid-season where Chad protests shoes his mom got at Costco: “Mom, how the heck am I supposed to become a professional social media influencer when I’m skipping around town in this crap? I mean, are you raising a young boy or a young Filipino male nurse?” The show wavers between that qualification of being either over-written with its jokes, or underwritten with some of its scenarios that it places Chad in. Some episodes, like one in which he babysits his younger sister Niki but learns about drinking culture from her friends, feel like shallow riffs on his trademark naïveté.
Part of the unusual experience of “Chad” is that it wants the viewers to stop seeing Pedrad in the character. And yet that’s when it becomes less special. Take Pedrad away from the show, replace him with an actual 14-year-old boy, and “Chad” wouldn’t have enough to say to stand out. But because Pedrad is playing this character, with such affection and physical dedication, the show works. She nails the antsy tugging of a backpack strap while talking to a new classmate, or the brittle posture walking through the halls, or the brief stolen moments in a bathroom, wiping away tears before throwing yourself back out there. The ample comedy here is not that Pedrad is in the title role, but that being a teenage boy is its own cruel and potentially very funny joke.
All of season one screened for review.