High school can be hell if you don’t fit in. This basic truth forms the premise of the TBS comedy series Chad, which takes on the perils of adolescence from the perspective of an excruciatingly awkward fourteen-year-old Iranian-American boy. The twist is that the boy is played by series creator Nasim Pedrad, the thirty-nine-year-old actress and comedian who also writes and directs the show. The Saturday Night Live alum actually blends easily into the teenage landscape with a short wig, a series of oversized polo shirts, and a deeper-than-usual vocal tone.
Chad was originally developed for Fox in 2016 but was never made at the network. That’s too bad because the series might have fared better back then, in a pre-Pen15 world. In 2021, it’s impossible not to compare Chad, with its mostly shallow plotlines and off-putting comedic preoccupations, to other recent teen series that feel infinitely more grounded and authentic. Chad is too often one-note, and that sole note is: annoying.
Pedrad has always been funny, and the series isn’t without its comedic high points. Chad talks with a uniquely silly cadence, tripping over pronunciations and speaking with the rushed excitement of a kid who’s at once socially anxious and utterly over-the-top. On the first day of ninth grade, he smokes a USB drive like a vape pen to look cool and lies that he had sex with a girl over the summer, “horny style” and with “a lot of verbal consent.”
In nearly every episode, we see Chad fixate on something new, be it K-pop or Lebron sneakers or a gifted authentic sword. He’s childish and geeky in a way that he can’t overcome, even after getting his brace off and making some headway with a group of cool boys led by his most consistent object of obsession, Reid (Thomas Barbusca). Chad is so aggressively dorky that the young actor who is best known for playing the most awkward character in the film Eighth Grade — Jake Ryan, who is great in this as Chad’s best friend, Peter — is essentially cast as the straight man in comparison.
The series’ biggest problem is that, in addition to being a weirdo, Chad is also an out-and-out jerk. He’s insensitive towards other cultures in a way that doesn’t serve the series nor lead to any deeper reflection. In an early episode, he becomes disturbingly obsessed with his mother’s Black boyfriend, Ikrimah (Phillip Mullings Jr.), and shows up at his house to crash a hang-out with his friends. “Chad, seriously, what is your obsession with Black stuff?” a man at the party (Kris D. Lofton) asks angrily after the teenager creepily touches his dreads, among other offenses.
With that arc running the length of the first three episodes, it’s a question viewers may find themselves asking as well. In the fourth episode, just as you might breathe a sigh of relief that Chad is over his racialized obsession, he joins a club that’s meant to appreciate diversity within Asian cultures. Before long he’s asking another member if his birth name is Keiko and citing his iPhone as an Asian product he appreciates. It’s unclear whether we’re supposed to be laughing with Chad or at him, but it doesn’t matter, since these moments just aren’t funny.
Such cringe-inducing cultural missteps would maybe make sense if they ultimately served to highlight Chad’s own consistent reluctance to identify with his family’s Persian roots, but like most other aspects of his identity — including his more pathological behaviors and his seemingly romantic feelings for Reid — that intriguing plot thread largely goes unexamined. Every time the show seems as if it’s about to head into deeper waters, it instead piles on more scenes of Chad being frustratingly needy and off-putting, alienating his peers in hard-to-watch exchanges that don’t serve any larger narrative purpose.
In many ways, Chad is the inverse of Pen15, another series that sees two of its creators (Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle) playing teenagers among a cast that’s otherwise made up of actual kids. Pen15’s protagonists are eager to grow up, but their precociousness is thwarted — oftentimes with a sense of impressionistic tragedy — by the fact that they’re still only seventh graders.
Chad, in contrast, seems immature for his age, with a simplistic view of the world around him that makes it difficult for him to adjust to the new rules of engagement in high school. This is the case for a lot of real-life kids, and it could make for a heartfelt, bittersweet story, but the material to support that more emotionally honest version of Chad’s story simply isn’t there. What we get instead is a mixed-bag sitcom that’s lightly entertaining but just as equally grating.
By the end of the first season of Chad, it’s unlikely that viewers will be rooting for its titular character as the impulsive, underdog outcast he’s set up to be — unless they’ve got a sky-high tolerance for the off-putting and borderline offensive. Maybe there’s a good reason no one likes the kid.
Chad debuts on TBS on April 6th.
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