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sumayyahkhalid
5th March 2023

So Help Me Todd review: Perky procedural shows promise

New TV series So Help Me Todd skilfully blends situational comedy with procedural drama
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So Help Me Todd review: Perky procedural shows promise
Photo: Michael Courtney © 2022 CBS Broadcasting Inc.

Spoiler alertThis article contains spoilers for So Help Me Todd

American television network CBS’s take on a legal dramedy comes in the form of So Help Me Todd, with over half of the first season having aired so far. The pilot episode introduces us to Todd Wright (Skylar Astin), a private investigator who is left unemployed and without a license after a run-in with the law. The youngest of the Wright siblings, he is the black sheep of the family.

Following the loss of his father when he was a teenager, he rejected his mother’s guidance in favour of forging his own path in life – albeit unsuccessfully. His mother, high-powered attorney Margaret Wright (Marcia Gay Harden), hires him to work at her firm, Crest, Folding & Song in Oregon, after witnessing his detective skills in action.

The two work together on a different case in each episode, healing their strained relationship in the process. Astin and Harden are a delightful duo, with their believable mother-son bond being the constant through-line given the case-of-the-week format of the show. 

Initially So Help Me Todd is unsuccessful in effectively balancing its comedic and dramatic elements, with Todd being written and portrayed as jarringly melodramatic compared to the people and situations around him. After the first few episodes, however, the show finds its tonal footing. So Help Me Todd prevents itself from feeling repetitive by letting the characters learn from some of their mistakes so they can evolve throughout the season. 

Margaret’s trust in Todd varies depending on the circumstances but ultimately remains intact, with their disagreements becoming progressively more minor and less fundamental. She has made mistakes as a mother, and has further to go towards recognising these and making amends – but working with her son professionally has made her reflect more on her influence as a parent.

The role of Todd plays to Astin’s strengths, having honed his comedic timing in Pitch Perfect and musical dramedy series Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist. Though I enjoyed seeing Astin in these roles, playing a character with more edge, whose personality and motivations can’t be conveyed through song, seems to be a good fit for him at this point in his career. Astin’s charismatic and earnest portrayal of Todd compels the audience to root for him even when he’s making a mess of things.

The other members of the Wright family include Allison (Madeline Wise), Todd’s married sister, who works as an ER doctor, and Lawrence (Matthew Wilkas), Todd’s older brother and chief of staff to the governor of Oregon.

Allison is the sibling who thrived off pleasing her mother and following rules, now living a life of outward comfort but inner turmoil. Throughout the season, she tries to distinguish Margaret’s vision for her life from her own. On this journey of self-discovery, she acknowledges that she isn’t happy being married to her husband Chuck.

Chuck is always present at the weekly Wright family dinners, but he’s mostly a silent observer. It is unclear as to whether Allison has something to worry about, or whether she is needlessly obsessing over what could have been. This feels like an honest dilemma. Still, the show would benefit from exploring Allison’s relationship more. A character like her could easily come across as whiny and ungrateful, but Wise gives a sensitive performance of a woman on the verge of self-sabotage, struggling to define herself on her own terms.

Lawrence is the least present sibling, having physically and emotionally distanced himself from the family due to feeling neglected by Margaret when he was younger. His long stretches away on work trips are a catch-22, resulting in a lack of physical presence in the lives of his husband and daughter – who attend the weekly dinners without him. His character lends more nuance to the dysfunctional Wright family relationships, reflecting the complexities of the characters’ perceptions of their upbringing.

For instance, Lawrence insists that Todd is Margaret’s favourite child – a viewpoint which shocks Todd given his historically fraught relationship with his mother, and how much pride he’s seen her take in Lawrence’s high-ranking government position. Lawrence is also jealous of how Allison could follow her dreams of becoming a doctor, while he was sent away to military school, though she did not choose this path entirely of her own accord. 

Matthew Wilkas as Lawrence, Madeline Wise as Allison, Marcia Gay Harden as Margaret and Skylar Astin as Todd in So Help Me Todd’s Thanksgiving episode – Photo: CBS Broadcasting Inc.

The intricate dynamic between the Wright siblings is one of the show’s strong suits. Each sibling has a unique relationship with their mother, and views their siblings’ circumstances differently compared to the reality of those circumstances – which is true to life. Viewers are bound to see pieces of themselves and their family members in these characters.

A rare conversational sequence between the three siblings in episode seven is particularly enjoyable to watch as the tensions between them, interspersed with humour, come to a head. The family relationships are infused with heart and solidarity despite the lasting impact of their grief and the dysfunction that it triggered. 

Though it was largely nepotism that landed Todd a job at Crest, Folding & Song, he isn’t allowed to get too comfortable – with the company’s filing cabinet room doubling as his makeshift office. His newcomer status within the firm creates an amusing dynamic with his coworkers. These include Lyle (Tristen J. Winger), an in-house investigator, and Susan (Inga Schlingmann), a lawyer at the firm and Todd’s ex-girlfriend.

Lyle and Todd butt heads throughout the season. The former’s meticulous approach towards cases is completely at odds with the latter’s reliance on instinct and spontaneity – and penchant for breaking the law. Still, the two always manage to find a way forward. Their adversarial relationship is well-written, with Winger’s deadpan delivery being humorously contrasted with Astin’s excitability.

The dynamic between Susan and Todd is less impactful. Susan has little screen time and suffers from being severely underdeveloped and underutilised. The show teases an archetypal office romance between her and Todd but the reasons as to why we should root for them are unclear. An outdated, bland joke in episode 10 about how it’s only true love when you fantasise about murdering your significant other, like Susan did with Todd, is used to suggest that the two are romantically compatible.

Given that the comedy in So Help Me Todd is otherwise refreshing, Susan is given the short end of the stick. Astin and Schlingmann have good onscreen chemistry, but a shared history between their characters that we know nothing about, and a lack of scenes together, makes it difficult to care about Todd and Susan as a couple. Though romance is arguably not the focal point of the show, there were missed opportunities for Susan to work closely with Todd and be more involved in the cases. This use of Susan’s character would help to develop the connection between her and Todd, and showcase her individual personality and professional ambition. 

Inga Schlingmann as Susan and Skylar Astin as Todd in So Help Me Todd’s pilot episode (Photo: Michael Courtney © 2022 CBS Broadcasting Inc.)

So Help Me Todd focuses more on relationship dynamics than procedural details, but the episodes cover thought-provoking legal ground. The themes and subject matter of the cases are aligned with contemporary legal developments. In episode seven, Margaret’s client and her client’s brother are discovered to be under abusive conservatorships that were approved by a fraudulent doctor.

Inspired by true events, Susan tells Margaret and Todd about new legislation that will be enacted in Oregon to make it easier for conservatorships to end if there is evidence of abuse, as a result of popstar Britney Spears’ public conservatorship battle. Episodes eight and 12 see Lyle and Lawrence become embroiled in cases that affect people they know, heightening tensions. Todd and Margaret work with a client who is not innocent in episode nine – requiring them to remain non-judgmental while ensuring that the truth is brought to light. 

So Help Me Todd’s emotional beats are relatable enough to resonate with a wide audience, while the comedic situations that Todd gets himself into infuse the show with levity and provide escapism. The case-of-the-week format minimises the need to remember everything that happened in previous episodes, improving the show’s rewatchability and making it ideal for comfort viewing. There is a gap in the market for a fun, family-oriented procedural show, and this one has already been renewed for a second season. The verdict? So Help Me Todd could certainly go the distance – and I hope that it does. 

3/5.

 

So Help Me Todd is currently airing on CBS and streaming on Paramount+ in the United States, with international distribution yet to be announced.


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