The Family Man review: An uneven, lengthy series held together by Manoj Bajpayee and earnest intent
The Family Man's version of a family man is someone who can't juggle his work duties and familial duties and we're supposed to find the comedy in that.
I really wanted to love The Family Man.
Raj and DK are always at the cusp of "the" next big thing, except in the case of Stree, the sleeper hit of 2018 that they wrote, which is a bonafide success. There's Go Goa Gone, which introduced Indians to a new kind of comedy, and is their best work according to me. There's Shor in the City, the quintessential underdog film — I can't find one person who hated it. There's A Gentleman, which I have no qualms in admitting I liked (what? It's a playful, decent watch). Despite mixed reactions to most of their work, they have a distinct flavour that invariably creeps into their storytelling.
The Family Man has a stellar cast — Manoj Bajpayee, Sharib Hashmi, Dalip Tahil, Priyamani, Gul Panag, and a bunch of other familiar faces — all of whom really pull this series through its long run time (10 episodes of 50-odd minutes each). It is a well shot series, smartly written and technically innovative in a lot of places (episode 6 has a 12-minute one-take shot in a hospital that is applause-worthy).
And yet, despite so much going for it, I struggled to sit through The Family Man. It oscillates between being attention-grabbing and lifeless. This can be confusing for the regular audience that has more choices than they need in terms of streaming content.
The series is set in Mumbai, and Raj and DK always provide a different view of the city with their hyper-local references. In the first five episodes, The Family Man is committed to showing us Srikant Tiwary (Manoj Bajpayee) as he juggles being a "family man" and also an underpaid government agent (he works for a special unit called TASC that tries to prevent terrorist activity). I expected this juggling to be a lot more comical and endearing. Imagine a government spy who loves cooking or playing poker with his kids? Imagine a spy who doesn't work on Sunday a la Akshay Kumar? I would have loved for the series to explore this more without so obviously wanting us to sympathise with Srikant, while vilifying his wife, Suchitra (Priyamani). In the first few episodes, she is reduced to a nagging wife stereotype. Eventually, she does get her own graph in between all the political action, but by the time it takes off we've lost the connect.
The series is committed to showing Manoj Bajpayee as some sort of a "bechara" who can't catch a break. To his credit, Manoj Bajpayee's performance is impressive as always, but his comic timing came across as weak. The Family Man's version of a family man is someone who can't juggle his work duties and familial duties and we're supposed to find the comedy in that. In comparison, the larger plot of the show is geopolitical involving Kashmir, ISIS terrorists and various bombings in Mumbai that centre around hyper-nationalism. The last 5 episodes follow TASC members as they try to thwart terrorist activities in and around India. A certain "Operation Zulfikar" takes Srikant to Kashmir, where he meets Gul Panag, an old friend and his Commanding Officer. From this point in the series completely ignores the "family angle" only peppering the show with small anecdotes for a change in pace.
Conceptually, The Family Man is uneven and doesn't commit to the world it builds for itself. Instead, it would have been nice to see the series focus on the Srikant as a character, giving him quirks in view of his epithet. He could have used his unique standing as an everyday family man and a government agent in different cases every episode. This would make the show shorter and more engaging.
Having said that, there's a lot to like in The Family Man. Intent, for one. There's a track involving dissenting Muslim students, nationalist propaganda and beef, that is handled with sensitivity. The terrorism and jihad angle in the show doesn't skew towards one side, giving us multiple perspectives. In some parts, the series is able to successfully oscillate between being light/fun and impactful. Two scenes come to mind: When Srikant reaches Kashmir, he is picked up by the Army. He asks them how everything is in the Valley, and he is promptly told that everything is fine and "normal". Meanwhile, a student is picked up at the airport by a local Kashmiri driver in a beat up Alto. When he asks the local, "haalaat kaise hain (how are things)" he is told, "jaise parinde par shajhar rakha hua hai (a like a free-bird is caged)". These companion scenes say a lot more about the series' intent then its larger plot.
The Family Man plays out best when it moves location to Kashmir. The visually stunning drone shots conflict with the ground political reality, which the series doesn't try to sugar coat. This is a big plus point.
My second favourite scene involves Sharib Hashmi, who easily has the best performance as Srikant's associate Talpade in The Family Man. His sections with Manoj Bajpayee are hilarious and demand repeat watches. In one such scene, a weary and exhausted Srikant complains about his inability to manage his work and his family over drinks with his colleague. Talpade suggests he goes to Bangkok to unwind, with that expected naughty expression on his face. "Aur main Suchi ka kya karoonga (what about Suchi)?" Srikant asks earnestly. To which Talpade says, "Main usse bhi wohi suggest karunga, why should boys have all the fun?"
Tighter writing, shorter episodes and more thought into the concept of a "family man" would have made the Amazon Prime series a sure-shot winner. Right now, the show is watchable but it will test your patience in parts. With shows like Killing Eve and The Spy in the same genre, and Netflix's Bard of Blood coming up, I'm not sure The Family Man will stand the test of time.
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