Four Kings is a quaint throwback to the old-school sitcom.

TV and popular culture.
Jan. 5 2006 4:08 PM

The Boys Who Would Be Kings

NBC's Four Kings is a quaint throwback to the old-school sitcom.

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Four Kings (premiering tonight at 8:30 p.m. ET), the new NBC sitcom intended to help turn the network's re-engineered Thursday lineup (Will & Grace, Four Kings, My Name is Earl,The Office) into the "must-see TV" night of yore, is a charming anachronism: a well-written, multi-camera couch comedy with setups, punch lines, and a laugh track. Putting on this kind of show, and doing it well, is becoming a quaintly disappearing art form, like origami or scrimshaw. (CBS's underrated How I Met Your Motheris another recent example of the genre.) Tonight's Four Kings pilot was even directed by the Kurosawa of sitcoms, James Burrows, who cut his teeth on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and has since helmed countless episodes of The Bob Newhart Show, Cheers, Frasier, and Will & Grace.

ButFour Kings most closely resembles a more recent sitcom that was also often directed by Burrows: Friends. It's got the post-collegiate straight guys living together in an impossibly swanky Manhattan apartment—though in this case, the guys are without their gal equivalents across the hall. As in Friends, the vast gulf between income and real estate is explained by a plot device called "Grandma."*  See, one of the guys' grandmothers (whose voice we overhear in an opening flashback) has just died, leaving her beloved grandson Ben (Josh Cooke) her vast apartment on the Upper West Side. (As a New Yorker just coming off a brutal housing search, I wanted to know more about this apartment: Classic six? Multistory? Doorman building? Unfortunately, the place is filmed in such conventional sitcom style that it could be the set from Roseanne, but with wainscoting.) The boys, best friends since childhood, even have a yuppie cafe that serves as their gathering place, like Friends' annoyingly named Central Perk (weren't they supposed to live in downtown Manhattan?)

We don't learn much about Ben and his roommates in the first few episodes, just enough to establish a rough typology: Ben is a freelance writer who's sensitive enough to get ribbed by his buddies for being too nice to women (though he's psyched to land an assignment at Maxim magazine.) Jason (Todd Grinnell) is a buttoned-up real estate developer who used to be a fat kid and is now obsessed with working out. Bobby (Shane McRae) is an affable stoner type whose greatest ambition is to sneak up on his roommates unawares and punch them in the chest. Seth Green (a familiar cult figure from the Austin Powers movies, Greg the Bunny, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer) plays Barry, a short redhead with an anger problem, sort of a cuter version of Danny Bonaduce.

Maybe my standards have just been systematically lowered by last season's grim crop of TV offerings, but I quite liked Four Kings. It's neither wildly innovative nor sidesplittingly funny, but it has a warm, cozy group vibe and no flagrant casting mishaps (unlike How I Met Your Mother, which boasts great quirky sidekicks but a terminally dull leading man). It also keeps the misogyny down to a gentle simmer, at least after the first episode. In tonight's pilot, Ben's girlfriend is depicted as a selfish shrew for wanting to share his swell new digs, while the guys' desire for the exact same thing is presented as pure, unsullied friendship.

The second episode, in which the newly single boys compete for female attention at a nightclub, allows the women characters to talk back, with a bitchy wit familiar from Will & Grace (created by the same production team, David Kohan and Max Mutchnick, who actually have been friends since boyhood). Will & Grace fans with lazy dispositions will probably leave the remote alone long enough to give Four Kings a chance at survival. Whether that same audience will stick around for the far edgier Earl/Office time bloc is another question.

Correction, Jan. 6, 2006: This story originally and incorrectly implied that Friends offered no explanation for why Monica and friends lived in such a large apartment. In fact, it was Monica and Ross' grandmother's rent-controlled apartment. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

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