Will Kelsey Grammer revive the old-school sitcom?

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Sept. 21 2007 10:26 AM

Heirloom Jokes

Will Kelsey Grammer revive the old-school sitcom?

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Back to You. Click image to expand.
Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton in Back to You

NBC premieres up zero—don't count 'em, zero—new comedies this fall, instead referring viewers in need of yucks to the Thursday-night lineup emplaced last season: My Name Is Earl, The Office, 30 Rock, and Scrubs. Meanwhile, ABC will have three new sitcoms on offer— Samantha Who? (starring Christina Applegate as a daffy amnesiac), Carpoolers (centered on the rush-hour antics of four suburban dudes), and Cavemen (the Geico-ad spinoff you may already be sick of). Further up the dial, the CW will debut its Islam-themed fish-out-of-water comedy Aliens in America after the third-season premiere of Everybody Hates Chris.

All of the above shows are single-camera sitcoms. In the most basic sense, this means that the action of each is captured with—count it—one camera. The look is cinematic and slick (like such single-camera forebears as The Munsters and M*A*S*H) rather than theatrical and energetic (as with I Love Lucy and Seinfeld and much else filmed in front of a studio audience). But in contemporary TV-land, the term is also a byword connoting hipness and edge and wise-assed sophistication and charismatic oddity. Arrested Development, the ne plus ultra of the form, existed in opposition to all those familiar multicamera sitcoms with a couch in the middle, a laugh track on top, and a squareness that goes to the bone.

Squareness has its virtues, but the multicamera comedies still hanging around—Fox's 'Til Death, ABC's According to Jim, whatever it is that CBS airs on Monday nights—don't show them to good advantage. The men holding down these shows tend to be slobs and horny goons. They're sons of Al Bundy, but, tamed of the raw energy that made Married With Children hum, they look like mere drips, and the worst offenders draw the best crowds. Last season's top-rated comedy was Two and a Half Men, that mediocrity-embracing outfit fronted by Charlie Sheen.

Such is the desolate landscape into which Back to You (Fox, Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET) rode this week. Set in a local-TV newsroom and starring Patricia Heaton and Kelsey Grammer as the Beatrice and Benedick of the anchor desk, it's been touted, not inaccurately, as a paragon of the old-school form … and it debuted to an audience that failed to impress Variety: "Back to You won its 8 p.m. timeslot in adults 18-49, but didn't have the kind of opening night drawing power you'd expect." Watch those numbers, kids. As goes Back to You, so goes the old-school sitcom.

Grammer's character, Chuck Darling, is less fussy than Frasier Crane but just as droll. His central trait is an endearing vanity that the actor cops from his idol, Jack Benny. The pilot found Chuck cast out of a bigger market after an on-air freak-out and slouching back to Pittsburgh and WURG-9, where his career began. Chuck's co-anchor, Heaton's Kelly Carr, picks up deflating his pomposity where she left off a decade before. If you grew up watching the lovably hokey predecessors of Back to You, then you already know that Chuck and Kelly had a one-night stand back in the day and can probably guess that their boozy union produced a child she's been raising on her own. Chuck's desire to show Kelly that he has the stuff to be a good father provides the scenario for next week's episode: Given a goldfish for his office, Chuck instantly kills his new pet by overfeeding it. His attempt to hide this failure from Kelly involves the slapstick deaths of half a dozen more goldfish and one particularly well-timed thwack of a fish corpse in a trash can.

You don't need to tell me how cheesy all of this is. That would be akin to mocking all of the stock figures wheeling around WURG (the whippersnapper news director, the hot tamale weathergirl, Fred Willard's fiercely stupid sports anchor) for being stock figures. Back to You doesn't have a mandate to be inventive—to try new comedic beats or to attempt daring flights of absurdity. It just needs to be uninventive in a snappy way, a feat readily accomplished. The show's quite corny, and the corn arrives crisp and warm. This is multicamera comedy as comfort food. Its success or failure says less about the kitchen whence it came than about the fickleness in the American palate.

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

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