Ahead of last fall’s deluge of TV series premieres, CBS promoted its new family comedy with succinct yet ambiguous ads: “Walton Goggins is ‘The Unicorn.’” It wasn’t immediately clear what kind of unicorn he was. (After all, the term can be used to refer to anything from a billion-dollar start-up to a mythical creature.) But the promise of Goggins (of ‘”Justified” and “The Righteous Gemstones” fame) doing straightforward family comedy was too unexpected to resist. Little did I know when I half-heartedly tuned into the premiere that “The Unicorn,” which wraps up its first season this Thursday, would become my favorite new show of the 2019-20 season.
Little did I know when I half-heartedly tuned into the premiere that “The Unicorn,” which wraps up its first season this Thursday, would become my favorite new show.
I fell in love with TV early in life in a pre-DVR, pre-On Demand and pre-streaming age, when we were pretty much limited to watching whatever was on. For someone eager to consume comedies in the ‘90s, that meant tuning into network sitcom after network sitcom, many centering on marriage and family. While I didn’t have the vocabulary to explain why so many of these shows felt off-putting, the pattern was easy to spot later. It was depressing to me, a preteen girl, that many of those sitcom husbands spent much of their time trying to avoid, trick or undermine their wives. Even “happy” marriages (Jill and Tim Taylor on “Home Improvement,” Harriette and Carl Winslow on “Family Matters,” Ray and Debra on “Everybody Loves Raymond”) still portrayed the wife as the “old ball and chain” — more of a disciplinarian or babysitter of her husband than a real partner.
Goggins’ character Wade Felton doesn’t have a wife. He did, but she died, leaving him to care for their two daughters, Grace (Ruby Jay) and Natalie (Makenzie Moss) on his own, with the help of two other couples and their kids. But even though the matriarch of the core family is absent, “The Unicorn” has a healthier, more wholesome outlook on heterosexual marriage — and on relationships and masculinity — than so many other sitcoms.
The men in this show actually love their wives (whether they’re still with us or not); they don’t just tolerate them. This shouldn’t be revolutionary, but it kind of is. While a comedy like “Married With Children” and its shamelessly misogynistic attitudes (no less toxic because they’re exaggerated) wouldn’t fly today, the trope of the schlubby husband and strict wife still persists on network television, which is why AMC is developing ”Kevin Can F--- Himself," a series that finally gives the woman in that kind of show a voice that isn’t filtered through a man. It will star wonderful “Schitt’s Creek” alum Annie Murphy.
Unlike that AMC offering, “The Unicorn” isn’t a direct satire. But it nonetheless challenges the gender roles that other shows revel in. For example, none of the jokes center around Wade trying to parse out “woman’s work.” His comfort with laundry and making school lunches heavily implies that he shared housework and child care duties equally with his wife. He also doesn’t struggle to relate to his daughters. They stumble through their grief together, but we get the sense that he’s always been interested and active in their lives, and that includes their emotional well-being.
There’s equity among their friends, as well. The relationships between Ben (Omar Benson Miller) and Michelle (Maya Lynne Robinson), and between Forrest (Rob Corddry) and Delia (Michaela Watkins) are respectful, playful and loving.
And the secret of the title? It actually relates to Wade’s status in the dating pool: The fact that he was happily married but is now single through no fault of his own makes him a “unicorn” for women looking for someone mature and stable. Another series might see his guy friends taking advantage of Wade’s vulnerability by reliving their own single days and testing boundaries. But in one episode where both Ben and Forrest decide to “wingman” Wade at a bar, they’re not even tempted to act up. They focus on their friend, treat all women around them as people, and look forward to telling their wives how it all went down — because they like them and want to share their lives.
Even when you suspect that the show may be dabbling in those reductive tropes, it subverts them. In a recent episode, Donal Logue guest starred as a new divorcee who tries to enlist a reluctant Wade to accompany him to “pick up chicks.” By the end, he’s revealed to be mourning a different kind of loss and overcompensating by behaving the way he thinks a newly single guy is supposed to. When relationships are presented as something you choose, not something that is thrust upon you, many of those tired plotlines that we grew up on no longer make sense.
The future of “The Unicorn” is still up in the air. CBS hasn’t renewed it for Season 2. But I hope that it returns, not only because it’s genuinely funny and honest about grief, but because it normalizes the idea that marriage is not a prison for a straight man, something that sitcoms have been trying to sell us as fact for far too long.
CORRECTION (March 12, 2020, 6:30 p.m.): An earlier headline on this article misstated the network that airs "The Unicorn." It airs on CBS, not Fox.