'Ted' Review: Seth MacFarlane Sitcom Falls Flat
TED -- "Subways, Bicycles, and Automobiles" Episode 104 -- Pictured: (l-r) Max Burkholder as John, Seth MacFarlane as voice of Ted -- (Photo by: PEACOCK)

‘Ted’ Review: Seth MacFarlane Sitcom Falls Flat

“Ted” is not the kind of story that begs for expansion. Once upon a time, a boy wished upon a shooting star for his stuffed teddy bear to come to life; in terms of exposition, that’s basically it. That teddy bear and his aggressive Boston accent, courtesy of creator Seth MacFarlane, went on to co-star in two hit films with Mark Wahlberg, the second of which hit theaters nearly a decade ago. Audiences could safely assume the movies’ one-note joke — a children’s toy that swears like a grown-up! — had run its course. A buddy comedy doesn’t have much lore beyond its buddies, even if one of them happens to be animated. 

In 2024, though, no scrap of intellectual property can go unexploited. That means “Ted,” the piece of pop culture trivia, is now “Ted,” a seven-episode prequel series on Peacock. Set in the 1990s, the show keeps the codependent bond between Ted and his kind-of-creator John (now played by Max Burkholder, formerly of “Parenthood”), but adds a nuclear family straight out of a period-accurate sitcom. There’s even a tangential family member, John’s college-student cousin Blaire (Giorgia Whigham), with a surprisingly prominent role in the 16-year-old’s daily life. Inexplicably, John’s parents have different names than they did in the films, but names hardly matter when it comes to archetypes this stale: Matt (Scott Grimes) is a rageaholic Republican, while Susan (Alanna Ubach) is a naive doormat who deserves vastly better. 

The original “Ted,” at least, had a core idea that could serve as a foundation for its cruder jokes. Ted was a living symbol of arrested development — all the childish things John couldn’t leave behind, now holding him back from thriving as an adult. (We don’t need to speak of “Ted 2.”) “Ted,” the TV show, has no such North Star. A teenager with a talking teddy bear is not different enough from a thirty-something bachelor with a talking teddy bear to constitute a fresh comedic take; both draw from the same simple contrast between a juvenile accessory and its juvenile-in-a-different-way obsession with sex, pot and profanity. Nor does “Ted” embrace the new sitcom setup enough to effectively establish a separate identity of its own.

With MacFarlane showrunning alongside Paul Corrigan and Brad Walsh, “Ted” begins with the title character being sent to school with John after one misbehavior too many. As an inciting incident, let alone a premise, this development is rather thin, though it sets up a handful of subplots in which Ted and John stumble through pubescent milestones like buying drugs, acquiring porn and attempting to get laid. But there’s no overarching plot or conflict to speak of — which is a problem, because “Ted” abruptly ends after just seven episodes, when an actual network sitcom would just be getting started.

If the season as a whole is too short, at least the individual episodes are painfully long, with a pilot that stretches for nearly an hour and subsequent entries that often run for over 40 minutes. This combination of brevity and bloat means there’s little time to cultivate character dynamics or a larger narrative, but plenty of space to cram in as many dropped R’s as possible. Just imagine “flame retardant,” “toga party” and “Jafar” pronounced with a New England honk and you’ve got the comedic gist. Any potential world-building is half-hearted, inconsistent or both: in the pilot, Blaire makes hay of a supposed family curse that’s never mentioned again, while Ted parties with girls in one episode and shows his ignorance of basic female anatomy in the next. In general, Ted’s existence goes largely unremarked upon apart from establishing he’s already had his 15 minutes of fame. The blasé attitude toward a living plush toy is good for a handful of gags, but also cedes the opportunity to explore this alternate reality.

What intriguing elements “Ted” has feel like they’re imported from another show. As the resident left-leaning co-ed, Blaire acts as the voice of reason, often speaking with a maturity and feminist perspective that seems imported from the present day (or at least outside the MacFarlane extended universe) — not that the ‘90s of it all amounts to more than a few topical gags about “Aladdin” or O.J. Simpson. Amid all the adolescent humor, Blaire’s emotional intelligence sticks out like a sore thumb, as when she tries to help Susan wake up to the bleak reality of her marriage. “Ted” has no interest in sincerity or imparting lessons á la the Very Special Episodes of the classic series it vaguely resembles. Yet it lets some in without incorporating it, like the tonal version of lumpy pancake batter.

It’s unclear, in the end, who this “Ted” is meant to serve. To whatever fans were still hoping for a “Ted 3,” the show doesn’t scratch the same itch. (For one thing, there’s clearly not the budget for a Tom Brady cameo.) But the show isn’t enough of a reimagination to pull in a brand-new audience intrigued by the R-rated version “Alf.” The “Ted” franchise has lain dormant for nearly 10 years. A pivot to streaming seems unlikely to revive it.

All seven episodes of “Ted” are now streaming on Peacock.