The great American sitcom! With its couches and kitchens, its upstage stairs and stage right doors. So central to our culture and so often mocked – made the emblem of television at its least imaginative and most imitative, at its tritest and tiredest. Witlessness presented as wit.
There is some truth in it; examples, at any rate, may be found to confirm one’s worst opinion of the form. And yet the big intellectual content bidding wars of the streaming age have been over comedies – “Friends,” “The Office,” “Seinfeld.” They leave an impression as great or greater than the Quality Dramas upon which the reputation of Titanium Age television rests. It isn’t that life can’t be gritty or hard, but TV rarely pictures the gritty hard lives people actually lead. But we see ourselves in sitcoms and as a bonus, laugh.
In the pandemic year, they have amazingly kept coming, even as the pandemic itself is not pictured in them or is briefly acknowledged as a thing that’s over. Indeed, we have fallen behind in covering them – so let’s look at several that have recently premiered or are about to. All but one are shot old-school, multicamera, laugh-tracked, live-audience style. All but one are explicitly about family and the other works as a metaphor for it.
Situation comedies typically begin at a moment of change. A new job, a new town, a new job in a new town. An old job in the hometown. An oil strike, a shipwreck. A death, a divorce. A runaway bride joins her friend and her friend’s friends in New York; a runaway bride moves in with her gay best friend in New York; a fussy divorced man moves in with his messy divorced friend in New York. But these are just prologues to be forgotten as the routine that makes sitcoms feel like life takes over. By the second episode of “Mary Tyler Moore,” Mary Richards might as well have been working at WJM for a year.
A dead wife and mother, along with a runaway bride variation, are baked into Netflix’s Nashville-set sitcom-with-songs “Country Comfort,” starring Katherine McPhee (“Smash,” “Scorpion”). McPhee plays Bailey, freshly dumped by her boyfriend-bandmate; breaking down in the rain on the way out of town, she more or less accidentally gets hired as a nanny for handsome, widowed horse rancher Beau (Eddie Cibrian). In several respects, it’s a rewrite of Fran Drescher’s “The Nanny,” on which creator Caryn Lucas was a producer and a writer, and seems to have been designed to satisfy an audience looking for a show where there’s more talk of church than of sex.
The kids are, in descending order of age: Tuck (Ricardo Hurtado), muscular and flirty; Brody (Jamie Martin Mann), tall and awkward; Dylan (Griffin McIntyre), who attaches himself to Bailey as a manager – “I make my calls right when I get up, so my voice is deep” – a program she gets with in spite of the fact that he’s 12; Cassidy (Shiloh Verrico, extremely present), who is not over the death of her mother, though her seriousness is undercut by the periodic need to pump sentimentality into the room like an air freshener or hypnotic drug; and Chloe (Pyper Braun), one of those mouthy tots beloved of television who is made to say things like, “Oh no you didn’t” and “It’s 2021, women can have it all.” She is 6.
Some or all will get musical as if their last name were Partridge or Osmond. (The show’s take on Nashville and the music business is whimsical at best.) Every episode brings a crisis and a resolution, and a little more love. “You’re the worst nanny we’ve ever had,” says Beau, on the way to a Western metaphor, “but you’ve got a heart the size of Texas.” It is highly predictable and quite watchable.
A dead wife and mother also haunts the backstory of NBC’s amiable “Kenan,” a family-and-workplace comedy that brings Kenan Thompson back to series television 21 years after the end of Nickelodeon’s “Kenan & Kel.” (He’s been a cast member of “Saturday Night Live” in nearly all the meantime.) Here he plays the host of an Atlanta morning show, local talk show host being a time-honored sitcom job previously practiced by Bob Newhart (“Newhart”); Dabney Coleman (“Buffalo Bill”); Bob Saget (“Full House”); and Dick Van Dyke (“The New Dick Van Dyke Show”) among, I am sure, others.
Kenan, also named Kenan in the show, lives with his twin daughters (Danni and Dannah Lane, smart but not smart-alecky) and gambler father-in-law (Don Johnson, funny), who bets on plot twists in “This Is Us.” Chris Redd, also from “SNL,” plays eccentric brother Gary – the scattered sibling is standard issue for the sitcom kit – who is also his manager. As we open, Kenan is having trouble processing the death of his wife, but he will get to it presently.
Produced, one might almost say inevitably, by Lorne Michaels, the show plays to Thompson’s natural sweetness and boyishness. (He remarks upon his own babyface.) Much of the action revolves around the family, who seem authentically related, but there are also excursions into manic hijinks where grown men get everything wrong and wind up breaking stuff. Anyway, it’s an easy hang.
In “United States of Al,” which premiered Thursday on CBS , Adhir Kalyan plays Awalmir, called Al, an Afghan translator who has come to America to live, for a time at least, with Riley (Parker Young), a Marine with whom he became friends. Unlike “Aliens in America,” a fine CW series from 2007 about a Pakistani Muslim exchange student, it is not satirical and, in the four episodes available, treads so softly upon the issues it half-raises that it may as well be “Punky Brewster” (see below). Set in Ohio, it is nonpolitical in that We Hate War but Support the Troops way.
Al is a Magical Stranger; he will charm-bully his American friends into seeing things with his new eyes. He haggles with a supermarket cashier, admires the paved roads, poses with a power mower to impress a cousin back home. Many of his observations are School of Yakov Smirnoff – “What a country!” – but now and then, he’ll turn a war story into a parable in order, say, to convince Riley’s daughter Hazel (Farrah Mackenzie, appealingly dry) to eat her spinach. And there is serious business regarding Riley’s difficult return to civilian life: He’s separated from wife Vanessa, played by Kelli Goss, a situation Al is annoyingly, determined to fix. (“You’re an optimistic little dude, ain’t ya?” observes Riley’s father, played by Dean Norris.) But these scenes feel more put on than lived through. On the other hand, when it spends quality time with Riley’s sister Lizzie (the excellent Elizabeth Alderfer), quietly off the rails since the death of her helicopter pilot fiance – death again! – it finds weight and realism the rest of the show doesn’t quite achieve.
“The Crew,” also from Netflix, and also not set among the coastal elites, stars Kevin James, whose television resume includes long-running sitcom “The King of Queens” with Leah Remini and the not very long-running “Kevin Can Wait,” into which the producers imported Leah Remini to help viewers recall “The King of Queens.” James stars here as the crew chief of a struggling – but not very hard – NASCAR racing team: “Twenty years ago we were fighting to lead the pack, now we’re fighting to lead the middle of the pack,” a comedown that does not seem to bother him particularly or interfere with his self-satisfaction.
To make a sitcom out of it, the boss’ daughter, Catherine (Jillian Mueller), a Stanford graduate and Silicon Valley vet, is suddenly put in charge. Monday morning meetings are called and kale chips and seaweed strips replace the traditional bags of junk food by the coffee machine. The new boss is not the same as the old boss. The dynamic between James’ and Mueller’s characters broadly recalls “Cheers” after Coach died and Rebecca took over, minus the sexual tension.
On a nuts-and-bolts level, the vehicle is sound; it doesn’t rattle too loudly or leak a lot of oil. The cast – including Dan Ahdoot as the chief engineer, Gary Anthony Williams as the chief mechanic, Freddie Stroma as their dim driver and officer manager Sarah Stiles occupying the Remini role – is very good, with enough depth and breadth that jokes can come from character. (There is too much dog-piling on Ahdhoot’s nervous character for my taste, and not just because he’s the character I most temperamentally resemble.) They’re fun to watch, but I never felt especially invested in their plotlines. But I laughed some.
There is a dead husband in the deep background of ABC’s “Call Your Mother,” created by Kari Lizer (“The New Adventures of Old Christine”) and directed almost entirely by Pamela Fryman, who directed nearly all of “How I Met Your Mother,” which is to say it’s a pro job.
Kyra Sedgwick stars as Jean, an Iowa woman whose grown children – son Freddie (Joey Bragg) and daughter Jackie (Rachel Sennott, making a strong impression) – are living in LA. Having not heard from Freddie for four days, she travels to LA to check on him. (Jean doesn’t worry about Jackie, who takes this is as not caring.) The pilot strains a little; Sedgwick’s character seems to be built on the back of jokes, rather than jokes proceeding naturally from character, and she seems a little insane at first. (“I’d still be breastfeeding if we lived in France,” she says in regard to her kids, and describes herself as a “hunt them down and force my love on them kind of person.”) But once she is indefinitely ensconced in the comfy Airbnb-esque guest house run by quasi-love interest Danny (Patrick Brammall, “No Activity”) and the other characters, including Austin Crute as Jackie’s roommate and Emma Caymares as Freddie’s girlfriend, have entered their mutual orbits, things relax and improve.
“Punky Brewster,” which first worked its dark magic back in the 1980s, has come back to life on Peacock. Like Netflix’s “Fuller House,” it is not a reboot but a long-delayed next season, executed more or less in the style of the original. It’s very much for children and people who were children back when.
Soleil Moon Frye returns as Punky (along with Cherie Johnson as best friend Cherie), still saying “Holy macanoli!” and wearing mismatched sneakers, but 33 years older, newly divorced and the mother of three: The younger two (Noah Cottrell and Oliver De Los Santos) are adopted brothers, a kind of Oscar and Felix if Felix painted his fingernails and wore eyeliner. (“I like it,” says Punky. “It makes your eyes pop.”) The third (Lauren Lindsey Donzis), swinging between deadpan and delight in that teenage way, is her daughter with newly ex-husband Travis (Freddie Prinze Jr.), a musician just “off the road” and proactively hanging around: “We may not be ‘together’ together, but I’ll always have your back, Punky Brewster.'”
Developed by Steve and Jim Armogida (the TV version of “School of Rock”), it’s a Feel the Feels affair in which eyes oft brim with tears, understanding smile meets understanding smile and a bed is just a place for the whole family to pile onto with popcorn and a dog. Your tolerance may vary for sentiments like “You don’t need to make room for Izzy in the apartment, you need to make space for her in your hearts” – mine is low – and there’s nothing here that strives to be remotely novel. But as a new season of “Punky Brewster,” it is unimpeachable. And was I moved by the series’ climactic reunion? Yes, I was.
These shows suit a variety of tastes and needs, and any sitcom that lasts for a while improves with time – both the time its makers put in, as actors and writers learn a little more with each passing episode about the world and people they’re creating and inhabiting, and the time the viewer puts in, riding along, getting to know them, getting to know all about them.
As the song almost goes: You want to go where you know everybody’s name.