Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, a newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, retrospectives, recommendations, and more. You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article to receive future editions in your inbox.
The new sitcom “Welcome to Flatch” opens with the on-screen text: “Recent studies show that Americans long for a simpler life in small towns. To explore these communities, Fox sent a documentary crew to spend time with the citizens of Flatch, Ohio. Population 1,526.”
Other than minor increases in that population number over time, the same text greets viewers at the onset of each episode. This premise points to a general expectation or feeling many have had over the past two years, and early signs say it might hold true. But whether a rural renaissance is here or not, the more immediate question is this: does “Welcome to Flatch” make a strong case for a new era of small-town living?
Not a First-Time Visit
The Ohio town depicted here is not a real place, of course, and this is not a real documentary. “Welcome to Flatch” is the latest in a long line of “single-camera” TV sitcoms that have used the mockumentary format to frame the narrative. You almost certainly know the markers well by now: characters’ knowing glances to the camera, scenes intercut with talking head interview excerpts, and other occasional fourth-wall breaking moments, all timed to comedic effect.
“The Office” is the best-known example of the form, and “Welcome to Flatch” shares another piece of common DNA with that beloved property. Just as there was a British “Office” before there was an American one, “Welcome to Flatch” is adapted from an existing BBC program with the same premise. The UK version of the show, “This Country” ran for three seasons starting in 2017, and even a cursory glance shows a lot of similarities in character dynamics and plotlines, regardless of the location change from a British village to an American town.
Where does that leave us with Flatch? At its worst, the show can feel like a pale imitation of what came before — a generic, store-brand version of forebears like “The Office,” or more directly in this case, “Parks and Rec.” For example, a recurring bit about a rivalry between Flatch and Pockton, the more buttoned-up town next door, mirrors almost exactly something “Parks and Rec” already did with its feud between the residents of Pawnee and their stuffy neighbors in Eagleton.
Yet, it’s worth remembering that these prior shows, while acclaimed now, were themselves not so assured in their early days. It was not a given, during its first episodes, that the American “Office” would prove superior, or even especially necessary, relative to its British counterpart. And “Parks and Rec” wouldn’t really mature into the show so many cherish today until its second or third season. Iteration and evolution are the name of the game when it comes to the American sitcom, where seasons are long and narrative threads are loose and episodic.
That’s the ideal path for “Welcome to Flatch” to follow. If it’s given the chance, there are reasons to believe it could similarly mature into a distinct and highly regarded show in time.
As for the present, the show goes down relatively easy, even when it lacks novelty or a particularly unique voice or trademark. In a world where every streaming service is loading up with more hour-long, big budget “prestige” programs to grab our attention, there is durable appeal in a broadcast sitcom like this. It’s TV comfort food.
The march of time and technology hasn’t made these shows any less necessary either; viewers continue to flock to reruns of “The Office,” “Friends,” and “Seinfeld,” and streaming platforms have accordingly shelled out big money to retain them. Likewise, another recent broadcast newbie, “Abbott Elementary,” seems to be trending in popularity of late, and it’s relying on a stylistic playbook similar to the one used by “Welcome to Flatch.”
Friendly Faces Everywhere
Flatch, Ohio can work as a strong sitcom setting for the same reason the regional office of a paper company or a small-town parks and recreation department can. Scale is key. A town of 1,500 people offers fertile ground to explore a rich network of character relationships and elevate their social quirks. It’s understandable that the people in this town would be known entities to one another, with running histories, shared rituals, and prior grievances.
In this case, our primary characters are Kelly Mallet and Shrub, a pair of cousins and young adult ne’er-do-wells who serve as tour guides for the supposed documentary crew visiting Flatch. If you’re like me, you may find them occasionally too goofy for your tastes. They are exceedingly hapless, awkward, and naive, and in its first batch of episodes, the show only hints briefly at deeper layers of complexity under the surface.
These types of shows are full of archetypes and big, cartoonish personalities by design, there’s no denying that. But the eventual rise of shows like “The Office” and “Parks and Rec” was fueled by finding the humanity at the center of characters who were broad and silly at first glance. While the actors portraying Kelly and Shrub (Chelsea Holmes and Sam Straley, respectively) are skilled comedic talents, particularly in the realm of physical comedy, I’m still looking for what makes these characters tick as people.
Fortunately, the show is buoyed by a solid cast of supporting characters, including a few who are a bit more grounded. Most prominent among them are the town’s new pastor, Joe (Seann William Scott) and local newspaper editor, Cheryl (Aya Cash). In classic sitcom form, the early episodes tease a romance for these two, who first came to Flatch as a couple when Joe was hired as pastor but later split up. I will admit to wondering at least once what this show would look like with Joe or Cheryl as its lead, but such a choice might only exacerbate the comparisons to shows that came before (On the flip side of that coin, I mused that “Welcome to Flatch’s” approach conjures visions of what “Parks and Rec” might have looked like with Tom and Andy as its leads, and Leslie Knope as a supporting character).
At any rate, the show finds some of its best gags when riffing on experiences and challenges familiar to rural areas. Faced by limited transportation options in the area, Kelly and Shrub start a ridesharing service, which doesn’t work out as planned. Pastor Joe attempts to have a first date over Zoom, but he’s stymied by spotty internet service, among other things. Cheryl, as an urban expat, faces some struggles adjusting to the transparency of life in Flatch, where word about town travels fast and few moves go unnoticed for long. The church serves as the nexus for much of the action, where stories kick off or converge, which feels at once appropriate and refreshing. Shot on location in North Carolina, Flatch does come across as a lived-in place, this fictionalized version of Ohio carrying a mixture of Midwestern and Appalachian sensibilities.
Prospects for Flatch
“Welcome to Flatch’s” British source text, “This Country,” was created by and starred siblings Daisy May Cooper and Charlie Cooper. The duo had limited show-biz experience but pitched the show based on their own upbringing in the Cotswolds of England. The first-hand credibility they brought to the project seemed to pay off, with “This Country” earning rave reviews and going on to win numerous awards.
In the U.S. we see the opposite strategy at work. “Welcome to Flatch’s” director and showrunner, Paul Feig and Jenny Bicks respectively, boast extensive track records in television and film, but they lack an apparent connection with rural living. Based on early reviews, “Welcome to Flatch” is not likely to win any awards in the immediate term. It displays the polish and competence of most big network sitcoms, but as noted previously, it’s still searching for some honest humanity and heart at its core.
Those with direct experience know, there’s plenty of that core goodness to be found in many rural areas and small towns, if you look in the right places. For the moment though, Flatch as a show is like many small towns out there — a little weighed down by past eras and somewhat rough around the edges. It’s still looking for its voice and its long-term prospects are uncertain, but it just might have some potential if you give it a shot.
This article first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, recommendations, retrospectives, and more. Join the mailing list today to have future editions delivered straight to your inbox.