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Fall TV preview: Comedies

Friday, August 14, 2009

If there was ever an opportune time for a big, crowd-pleasing television comedy to come along, it might just be now. A half-hour (or more, to be honest) of hearty laughs on primetime TV every week would certainly lighten moods from coast to coast and border to border.

Right now, there are several top-notch sitcoms on the air. CBS has three great examples of the traditional multi-camera comedy: "The Big Bang Theory," "How I Met Your Mother" and "The New Adventures of Old Christine." Each one is well-written, produced and acted; the first two are among the seven Emmy nominees for Outstanding Comedy Series and are also sizable hits.

This fall, CBS will try a new Jenna Elfman-led sitcom called "Accidentally On Purpose," which feels -- by the clips and descriptions I've seen so far -- far less inspired than any of the above. Elfman, with the right scripts, can be lovable and appealing, but the material she has here (a movie critic who finds herself pregnant after a fling with a younger man) doesn't seem to give her much to work with.

NBC's single-camera shows "30 Rock" and "The Office" are darlings of the critical establishment -- and the industry too ("Rock" set a record this year for comedy series Emmy nominations with an astonishing 22) -- while managing to be among their network's most popular offerings.

NBC's top fall comedy is called "Community;" it stars Joel McHale, who might be best known as the quick-quipping host of the E! Channel's "The Soup," a half-hour distillation of the more ridiculous moments in television from the previous week. He's funny there; he's just as funny in "Community," playing a lawyer who discovers his law degree isn't -- well -- legal. "Community" also manages to revive Chevy Chase's career in near-record time. The pilot episode doesn't quite reach the heights of "30 Rock" or "The Office," but given time, it's got a shot.

FOX's Sunday animation block, featuring hits like "Family Guy" and "The Simpsons" (which will enter its 21st season this fall) are the only real comedy series successes the network has on hand; most of their live-action half-hour offerings have fallen short ratings-wise.

The newest live-action offering is "Brothers," starring former New York Giants defensive star Michael Strahan, essentially playing a down-and-out version of himself. Judging by the laugh-free clips I've seen, I think this may be a "three-and-out" situation (that is, three episodes and canceled). FOX will likely have a lot more luck with "Family Guy" spin-off "The Cleveland Show," but the moments I've seen of "Cleveland" don't make me a fan of it, either.

And then there's ABC, which returns a grand total of two half-hour comedies this fall; never mind that neither the rejuvenated "Scrubs" nor the acclaimed (and not just by me, thank you) "Better Off Ted" has set the Nielsens on fire -- or even accidentally set off the smoke detector. Midseason offerings like "Surviving Suburbia" and "The Goode Family" somehow did even worse.

ABC, however, is the network that will make the most aggressive comedy push this fall: a two-hour block of sitcoms on Wednesday nights. Of the four shows, "Modern Family" is the clear stand-out. Shot in a mock-documentary style, it details the foibles of three families (one traditional; the other two, not so much). It's the best new comedy of the season on any of the networks; the script is clever and tightly-written, the performances are honest and smart - and I would be remiss if I didn't mention the most important element of "Modern Family:" it's laugh-out-loud funny. If you seek out one new half-hour comedy this fall, make it this one.

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Jeremy Blomstedt
The Entertainment Center