Chad, the eagerly awaited new sitcom (mostly) shot around an unnamed Portland, was always a labor of love for creator-writer-producer Nasim Pedrad. The Saturday Night Live vet-turned-film and TV mainstay (Aladdin, New Girl, Desperados) credits her own experience as a first-generation Iranian American navigating Orange County for inspiring the comic misadventures of a recent Persian immigrant desperate for acceptance among the high school elite. After an early pilot failed to crack Fox’s 2016 prime-time slate, she spent years shepherding the project around to the various networks until TBS agreed to an eight-episode season, which began airing earlier this month.
Since the 39-year-old actress cast herself to play the titular 14-year-old boy, Pedrad may have been dreaming about the program for far longer. Still, considering her ever-darkening portrayal of Chad as a ceaseless agent of social despair—an unholy mélange of The Omen’s Damian, Wednesday Addams, and Cousin Oliver from The Brady Bunch flailing forward through ever more excruciating hellscapes of his own making—some origin stories might best be left untold.
To be sure, we’ve seen variations of this before. A string of recent films have thrust adult language and mature situations upon tweener libertines, while attractive TV campuses from Riverdale to West Beverly are used to distract audiences from the receding hairlines of sophomores closer to middle age than the wonder years. Most notably, even as Chad trudged through an especially disabled development, the comedy series PEN15 won critical acclaim by letting its 30-something creators act out as their diddle-crazed seventh grade selves among a cast of actual adolescents.
In this day and age, anyone can play anything, to be sure, but certain sorts of stunt casting needlessly strain audience credulity. Pedrad, a gifted impressionist whose SNL stint is remembered largely for her vicious takes on Kim Kardashian, Arianna Huffington and, tellingly, Aziz Ansari, throws herself into Chad’s rolling slouch and upholstered eyebrows with an impeccable physical performance that nevertheless feels throughout like a gifted impressionist mimicking a teenage boy she doesn’t much like.
Most damning, Pedrad is alone in the age play. While PEN15 cloaks its leads in the ugliest trappings of pubescence as a means of highlighting adolescent fragility, Chad’s faux-brows and plasticine facial gloss appear to vaguely empower a corrosive narcissism. By building the story around the showrunners’ friendship, the Hulu program softens the conceit’s more jarring visuals and all but eliminates the creepier connotations threatened by leaning into hormonal delirium—i.e., those dizzyingly inappropriate moments Chad rushes toward.
The pilot episode finds our ostensible teenage boy awakening after what he believes was his first sexual encounter. Scenes of a nymphet awkwardly seducing Chad vaguely disturb, while his scamper home to dive under covers wholly confounds. Chad marries the repartee of a Borscht Belt comedian with the behavior of a suburban pubescent, which flatters neither. It’s more than clear he has never actually done the deed, but after that tearful flight from a more-than-willing partner, we’re left wondering whether he physically can.
Though the entire series beyond the pilot was filmed around town, Chad’s creators studiously avoided any local landmarks or regional signifiers. However, there is a whiff of our fair burg in the lush foliage, the metropolitan sheen absent any lurking dangers of urbanity, and the garbled messages sent when racial tolerance outpaces racial diversity. At a school assembly condemning a supposed hate crime against Chad—perpetrated mistakenly, of course, by Chad—he’s called “one of our most ethnic students” before the marching band plays the theme from Lawrence of Arabia.
Our eponymous hero was originally born with the Persian name Fereydoon, but selected his Americanized moniker after spotting a gift shop’s miniature license plate display, and the show’s side-eyed embrace of his Iranian heritage may be its greatest triumph. Chad’s sis pays no mind to her background, Mom (Saba Homayoon) halfheartedly talks up the advantages of Persian culture (“People love our cats!”), and dear, daft uncle Hamid (Paul Chahidi) seems content sharing the occasional hookah with fellow expats.
Chad, meanwhile, seeks to distance himself from any hint of strangeness yet leaps at every opportunity to exploit a salable distinction. He does not want to assimilate nearly so much as dominate the social strata around him—ideally as a favored member of Westpark High’s hunky alpha pack loosely led by doe-eyed Reid (Thomas Barbusca). When Chad’s best attempts clash horribly with the prevailing mood, he is simultaneously bewildered and crestfallen.
Inasmuch as trending teen culture informs and shapes Chad’s milieu, Chad himself seems from another era—a distant age when the popular could reign unfettered by worries about privilege. Chad so desperately wants to bully others that, when Reid finally imposes boundaries, the sensitivity-trained language of therapy feels crueler than proper bullying. Somewhere, buried within the cringe-and-purge shtick, there’s an interesting tale of a young sociopath’s failed attempts to conquer the lunchroom. Stories of adolescent hubris still feel fresh. It’s the petulance that gets old.
SEE IT: Chad airs at 10:30 pm Tuesdays on TBS. The show also streams on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, Hulu, Sing TV, Vudu.