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Trio of new fall sitcoms premiere

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A number of new sitcoms line the landscape of fall schedules on the major broadcast networks. I have been able to catch a few of them, but not all (I missed this past Monday night's premiere of CBS' "2 Broke Girls," a show I will endeavor to get back to as soon as possible). I did, however, manage to watch two new NBC Wednesday night entries, as well as FOX's Tuesday night addition. Of the new trio, one shows promise (but I expected a lot more from it), another fell flat (and I plan to see much, much less) and the third...well, that one's a puzzling disappointment.

Let's start with the best of the three, NBC's "Up All Night," which premiered last Wednesday night at 9 p.m., but moved to its regular 7 p.m. slot this week. The comedy stars Christina Applegate and Will Arnett as a happily married pair who experience a massive change in their fairly free-wheeling lives when they have a baby. The show picks up on Applegate's first day back at work for a demanding Oprah Winfrey-esque talk show host, played by Maya Rudolph, while Arnett is now a stay-at-home dad.

Executive producer Lorne Michaels and show creator Emily Spivey have assembled a good cast - I don't think there are two actors in any series this fall that I anticipated watching work together more than Applegate and Arnett. But after watching the pilot, I felt kind of let down; this is a show that mostly makes you smile in anticipation for all the funny stuff that you are sure is about to happen, but then never materializes. It's not a bad pilot - not by a long shot - mainly because there are a few good laughs here. (A scene where the new parents admire their child and simultaneously realize that they swear too much is genuinely funny.)

But a comedy with a pedigree like this one shouldn't be merely a pleasant, professionally-made production. It needs genuine belly laughs, something that everyone involved with the show has a history of generating. I'm not giving up on "Up All Night," mainly because I think that the problems the show has could be pretty easily fixed, but in the tough timeslot it's in right now (including reality legend "Survivor" on CBS, FOX's juggernaut-in-the-making "The X Factor" and ABC's self-starter family comedy "The Middle"), I hope NBC will give the show a chance to improve. Two and a half stars.

The worst of the three new comedies I watched is the show that follows "Up All Night" at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays on NBC, a painfully unfunny half-hour called "Free Agents." The series stars Hank Azaria and Kathryn Hahn as two sad sacks working at the same public relations firm who now have to deal with the emotional fallout from their one-night stand. He's lonely and sad. She's lonely and sad. I know, I know - it's got all the ingredients for a total laff riot, huh?

And that's the thing. A very funny and very likable romantic comedy can be made with those ingredients, one that brightens the pathos with witty banter and some genuine chemistry between the leads. "Free Agents" has none of that. None of the characters comes off as real or relatable, never mind the fact that they aren't funny, either. Worse perhaps, Azaria and Hahn strike zero sparks in their scenes together. "Free Agents" looked pretty grim to me when I watched a few clips a couple of months ago. I'm sorry to say that my opinion has only worsened. One and a half stars.

That brings me to FOX's new Tuesday night sitcom "The New Girl," starring indie film darling Zooey Deschanel. This was a much buzzed-about series, with Deschanel set to be a major draw after success in such movies as "500 Days of Summer" and the recent "My Idiot Brother." To be sure, the show is full of quirky energy and goofy character beats and other assorted whatnot, all of which made me smile half-a-dozen times and laugh once or twice, but mostly as I watched the show, I scratched my head and wondered why this one wasn't better.

The best comedies on TV these days come fully equipped with sharp, focused writing, which keeps the narrative on track, but also allows the writers the freedom to play a bit with their characters and the situations they find themselves in. "The New Girl" doesn't have that focus, I'm sorry to say. Ultimately, the whole show feels like an assemblage of spare parts from other - and better - single-camera sitcoms, all kind of tossed together with a prayer that the the star's innate likability will be enough to make it work. The plot, which involves Deschanel's wide-eyed and goofy character moving into an apartment with a trio of men, somehow simultaneously meanders and races to an all-too-easy, only-on-TV resolution. Admittedly, I've seen worse first sitcom episodes (heck, I've seen them this week), but "The New Girl" was genuinely disappointing. Even so, I'm not ready to call it a total flop.

There's potential here for something good, and I also think that FOX has enough riding on this show that they will give it some time to come together. Deschanel is, for the most part, a welcome presence on-screen, but I think her character's quirkiness needs to be toned down. A lot. Two stars.

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Jeremy Blomstedt
The Entertainment Center