In “Chad,” Nasim Pedrad Wonders What It Feels Like for a Boy
The former ‘SNL’ star’s cringe comedy is a sweetly sympathetic look at teenage masculinity.
Over the years, there’s been no shortage of shows about the pain of male adolescence. Whether it’s The Wonder Years or Big Mouth, Hollywood loves exploring boyhood — especially the accompanying awkwardness and hormones — but I don’t think it’s ever been investigated in quite the way that Chad does. In large part, that’s because the TBS sitcom’s titular character is played by a 39-year-old woman, creator and former Saturday Night Live performer Nasim Pedrad. But the differences go far beyond that. Chad, a 14-year-old Persian kid aching to be popular, can be an insufferable little shit, but Pedrad’s clear affection for the character clues us into the vulnerability within this sometimes exasperating young man. Toxic masculinity is all around us, but Chad argues that some teens may escape that fate. It’s a portrait of messy, complicated boyhood told from a female perspective, and a rather loving one at that.
The show, which premieres tonight, opens with a moment that Chad thinks will change his life. After years of wearing braces — the sole impediment, he assumes, that’s kept him from being cool — Chad has them removed right before his first day of high school. Alongside his equally nerdy best friend Peter (Jake Ryan), Chad is ready to finally fit in, but as we’ll learn over Chad’s eight-episode run, it wasn’t really the braces that held him back — just as it isn’t the fact that his family is from Iran and he’s the only Middle Eastern student. (Actually, bullying is virtually nonexistent at Chad’s Oregon high school. Even the jocks are nice.)
What becomes apparent to the audience, if not Chad, is that he’s simply one of those 14-year-olds who’s just … well, he’s an oddball. A lot of us were at that age — horribly insecure, perpetually hiding behind self-conscious posturing — but Chad is especially socially awkward. Unlike his younger sister Niki (Ella Mika), who seems wholly comfortable in her own skin, Chad spends each day obsessing over what it’ll take to be cool, focusing much of his energy convincing cocky classmate Reid (Thomas Barbusca) to like him. Naturally, the harder Chad tries to be popular, the more it backfires. For one thing, he has a habit of vomiting when he’s anxious. Also, he fumbles common expressions. (Chad will yell to a classmate “TGIF!,” not realizing it’s something you should only say on Fridays — and, really, not even then.) Rather than being honest with his peers, he lies — about all the sex he’s had (he’s a virgin), about the knockoff LeBron James shoes he swears are the real thing — which only brings him scorn. The poor kid can’t get out of his own way.
Chad has been compared to Pen15 (in which adults also play teens) and Curb Your Enthusiasm (the Citizen Kane of cringe-comedy), and although Pedrad can’t fully escape those shows’ shadow, what differentiates this series is its deep compassion for this boy. Chad understands that he’s really a sweetheart so wrapped up in distorted ideas about popularity and masculinity that he keeps making a fool of himself. The show can be funny, but I don’t find its shame-centric humor especially hilarious. It is, however, pretty effective at suggesting how nice boys can get permanently warped if they don’t grow out of those childhood hangups.
Pedrad has been thinking about this series for a while. About five years ago, Chad was developed (and then abandoned) by Fox, but the ace impressionist — among her best-known roles on SNL were portraying Arianna Huffington and Kim Kardashian — always knew she wanted to play Chad. “I don’t know why at the core of my spirit I feel like a 14-year-old boy — [maybe] because I grew up with a lot of guy cousins; I was such a tomboy; I played sports; I was a bit of a late-bloomer when it comes to finding my femininity,” she recently told Variety. “So even though he is a boy, every corner of this character reminds me of myself at that age — certainly the desire to fit in and the paralyzing fear of being different.”
Born in Tehran before moving to America as a child, Pedrad surely understands Chad’s panic about “compensating” for his Iranian heritage — especially considering how embarrassed he is by his gregarious live-in uncle, Hamid (Paul Chahidi), who is utterly unconcerned about integrating into American culture. As a result, Chad struggles to present as the hippest American teenager ever — specifically, he tries to be his version of a jaded white kid, and it’s fitting that the character is least appealing when he thinks he’s close to attaining coolness. Chad will treat Peter badly in public if it’ll advance his social stature, and in one of Chad’s most pointed subplots, he gloms onto his mom Naz’s (Saba Homayoon) new boyfriend Ikrimah (Phillip Mullings Jr.) because this Black man represents the epitome of American sauveness as it’s portrayed in the media. Chad is so desperate for a new identity that he’ll appropriate whatever one comes into his orbit.
The makeup, baggy clothes and wig that Pedrad utilizes to play Chad are all fairly convincing, although the gender-flip does nicely underscore how, for teenage boys, you’re always operating a bit in a disguise, clinging to an ill-fitting suit of sarcasm and strained nonchalance to signal to the world that you’re definitely all grown up. Boys can be jerks, mocking those who are different in order to make themselves feel better. (It’s all part of the costume you wear to appear emotionally bulletproof.) And as Chad tries to fit in, he does his share of mean things too, but Pedrad never lets us forget that, deep down, he’s a good kid going through a phase. Her performance is less a takedown than an act of extreme empathy.
As much as Chad craves popularity, what he really wants is not to feel the scary emotions that consume all teenagers — self-doubt, romantic heartbreak, a nagging fear that you’re irrevocably weird. Too many adults never make peace with those childhood feelings, resorting to unkindness, cynicism and abusive behavior to swat away those ingrained insecurities. Chad isn’t overtly about toxic masculinity, but its familiar cringe-comedy format stealthily conceals a sincere study of how boys learn to be men — and what kind of men they’ll end up becoming. Chad is one very dorky, awkward kid, but you walk away from Chad convinced that he’s going to turn out okay. Pedrad loves him too much to let him go astray.
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