Comedy is beginning to hit its stride on the networks this fall. Only a handful of years ago, the sitcom was out of favor across broadcast lineups as programming departments aimed to find their Next Big Thing by flooding the marketplace with reality-competition shows, multiple versions of pre-sold brand name shows and attempts to repackage the Latest Big Thing's concept.
But outside of a few strongholds (CBS on Mondays or FOX on Sundays, for example) comedies were being put out to pasture. Perhaps the best -- or is it worst? -- example of this was NBC's decision to cut back on its Thursday night comedy block, which had been a cornerstone for the network for two decades, in favor of "The Apprentice."
Historians of the medium will tell you that it only takes one or two sizable hits in a particular genre to get the pendulum swinging back in its favor, however "dead" it seems to be. When ABC rolled the dice on a batch of sitcoms back in 2009 and hit the jackpot with "Modern Family" (along with solid ratings performer "The Middle" and the oughta-be-bigger "Cougar Town"), that seemed to signal the opening of a rediscovery period.
Indeed, that's been the case at all of the networks. This season, FOX's "New Girl" premiered to giant out-of-the-box ratings and has held up well in the weeks after. "Modern Family," now a two-time Emmy winner for Best Comedy Series, is seeing its own already big ratings boom. And perhaps the story of the opening weeks of the fall was the truly immense season premiere rating for "Two and a Half Men," which drew a staggering (for a sitcom in 2011) 30 million viewers.
There are several additional comedies that have debuted in the last couple of weeks; here's my review of two that I had high hopes for, CBS' "How to Be a Gentleman" and ABC's "Suburgatory."
"Gentleman" -- which airs Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. -- is an utter disappointment. It stars David Hornsby as a ever-so-slightly twee etiquette columnist for an upscale men's magazine. When his editor, played by Dave Foley, informs him that the magazine has been purchased and is now being revamped, it forces Hornsby to have to reconsider how he writes his column -- which also leads him to decide to re-affirm his manhood.
Into this situation swaggers a macho gym owner, portrayed by Kevin Dillon, who just happened to be one of the numerous bullies that the columnist had to deal with in high school. In short order, the mismatched duo (an "odd couple," if you will) is clashing and bonding on their way to being better men, or something.
If anything I've just written sounds fresh and original to you, you may want to take this quick assessment of yourself, because you may have:
A: Been born recently.
B: Been born on a planet other than Earth.
C: Never seen a TV show, a movie, or read a book.
D: All of the above.
Much like NBC's "Up All Night," to which I gave a middling review a couple of weeks ago, the cast is packed with genuinely funny actors. Unlike that show, however, the one in "Gentleman" has found itself stranded in one stock situation after another, and the script doesn't have the spin or lightness or sharpness it needs to produce any real laughter.
Frankly, everyone looks kind of ground-down, even though they try to muscle through material you know they themselves are comparing to previous work. For example, Foley starred in the classic "NewsRadio," Mary Jane Rajskub (who plays the columnist's sister) broke through on the cult HBO sketch comedy "Mr. Show," and Hornsby himself showed a willingness to go for broke in his performances on the much-edgier "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia."
Now, it's not like I'm asking for a show like "Sunny" on a major network; that's one show that's decidedly not a mass-appeal comedy. (To be fair, I don't think any of them really were.) But "Gentleman" wants to be that middle-of-the-road sitcom that lots of people like, and it wants it too much. One and a half stars (out of four).
Then, there's "Suburgatory," which -- unwieldy title aside -- is one of the funniest and best surprises so far this year. Hammocked in the 7:30 p.m. time slot between ABC's "The Middle" and "Modern Family" on Wednesday nights, this is the first show the network has scheduled that actually seems to fit the slot, after the strained "Better with You" from last year and the painful "Hank" from the year before. It's not just a pleasant filler of a half-hour, it's a worthy addition to the night and an excellent segue from the loopiness of the Heck family to the more-grounded comic sensibility of the Pritchett and Dunphy clans.
Jane Levy plays a teenager whose life as a hip, quip-at-the-ready urbanite gets short circuited by her divorced dad (Jeremy Sisto) when he finds a box of condoms in her bedside drawer. He instantly whisks her off to a location out of her worst nightmares: the suburbs, where her female peers have vacant stares, the drink of choice is Sugar Free Red Bull and people stand four-abreast to water their perfectly manicured lawns.
Satirizing a planned community and its denizens isn't a new concept, of course, so if the show was merely trying to score those too-easy points, it might not be worth any attention. Happily, "Suburgatory" is smarter than that. While Levy's character initially observes her new environs with a jaundiced eye (and is more than a little upset that her father swept her away from the life she knew), it doesn't take long for her to realize that beneath the glossy trappings, there is humanity here.
Levy and Sisto make for a fine combination: all they have is each other, and there's real affection between them, yet they don't quite know how to connect. There are also some very funny supporting performances from Alan Tudyk as a college buddy of Sisto's who is now very wealthy and very orange, plus Cheryl Hines -- a million miles from "Curb Your Enthusiasm" -- as an underdressed mom whose abundance of hair and make-up masks a genuinely kind heart.
"Suburgatory" is quick-witted, clever and surprisingly warm. It's also my favorite new comedy this fall. Three and a half stars.