Thursday, September 20, 2007

It's Not Fair, But the Fate of the Sitcom May Be Riding on "Back to You"

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

Last night marked an event that was once considered routine, but now merits both celebration and close scrutiny: A traditional multi-camera sitcom had its series debut.

And not just any sitcom. It’s like the old guard of half-hour comedies decided to throw all of its resources into one mega-program to prove once and for all that the genre is not dying. “Back to You” is like the All-American team of sitcoms. Kelsey Grammer, who played Dr. Frasier Crane for 20 years in two of the most successful sitcoms of all time, “Cheers” and “Frasier,” is one of the stars, and Patricia Heaton, who spent nine years as Ray Romano’s wife on the mega-hit “Everybody Loves Raymond,” is the other lead. That’s a combined six Emmy wins and 16 nominations (that’s not even counting Grammer’s Emmy for his voice work on “The Simpsons”) on one show. The cast also features comedy legend Fred Willard, which provides “Back to You” with a kind of comedy street cred.

The luminaries behind the scenes are equally impressive. “Back to You” was created by former “Frasier” executive producer Christopher Lloyd and “Frasier” writer and “Just Shoot Me” executive producer Steven Levitan. The director is the king of sitcom directing, James Burrows (just a sampling of the shows he has helmed include, “Cheers,” “News Radio,” “Frasier,” “Friends,” and “Will & Grace”).

With so few multi-camera sitcoms on the air, the appearance of any new one causes a mixture of hope and fear. Hope that it’s good, fear that if it’s not, sitcoms will disappear from network television. That’s a lot of pressure for 22 minutes of jokes to bear.

Last night, I tuned into the pilot of “Back to You” seriously hoping it had some life, some edge, and, most of all, some laughs. There were lots of places for the show to go wrong. Grammer is so associated with the character of Frasier Crane, could he be believable and accepted as another character? While Levitan wrote for “The Larry Sanders Show” and “Frasier,” he also unleashed “Men Behaving Badly,” “Stark Raving Mad” and “Stacked” on a defenseless American public. And while Burrows is a comedy deity, he also directed “The Class” last season, which while not terrible, was very deliberate and forced, way more clinical than joyful, a trap that was potentially waiting for an all-star-laden program like “Back to You.” A stiff, lifeless sitcom is the last thing we need on the air now.

For those of you that managed to successfully avoid Fox’s media blitz promoting “Back to You” (please email me immediately with how you managed to accomplish this feat), the plot set-up is pretty simple: Grammer plays Chuck Darling, an L.A. news anchor who, after unleashing an expletive-laced attack on a co-anchor when he mistakenly thought the cameras were off, returns to the station where he got his start in Pittsburgh, and he is reunited with his nemesis and former co-anchor, Kelly Carr (Heaton), who never made it out of the small market.

As the pilot began, one element of the opening made me smile and demonstrated to me that Levitan, Lloyd and Burrows understood that the bar had been raised and they needed to bring their “A” games. Chuck’s meltdown is viewed not live, initially, but through a YouTube window, just as a majority of people would experience an embarrassing on-screen moment like that today. It’s a small thing, but it really affected the tone in a positive way. It showed that the creators could take a classic sitcom look and feel and give it enough of a 21st century jolt so that it felt fresh and current.

Most of the show works. There were more jokes-per-second in the pilot than you would find in most sitcoms, and, more importantly, the completion percentage was high. I laughed. A lot. Which, while you would think would be a given in a sitcom, is not (just watch an episode of “The Bill Engvall Show” and see for yourself). A running gag involving the reporter with anchor aspirations, Gary Crezyzewski (Ty Burrell, last seen in last year’s “Out of Practice”), landing drive-by put-downs at the expense of the libido of the weather girl, Montana Stevens (Ayda Field; good to see Jeannie of “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” finding another gig so quickly), was consistently clever, even if the underlying concept has been done a million times before. Similarly, Montana’s strategic use of her Latin heritage to get what she wants is an inspired spin on the cliche of the sexy weather girl.

There were also some exceptionally sharp turns of dialogue that you wouldn’t find in the average episode of “Two and a Half Men” or “According to Jim.” When Kelly learns that Chuck thought she had fallen in love with him after their one-night stand the night before he left Pittsburgh, causing her to get pregnant, Kelly sarcastically agrees, telling him, “It was Beatlemania in my ovaries.”

"Enough about the writing," you’re probably thinking by now. "Tell me if Grammer is believable as another character!" Well, yes and no. It was shaky at first. In a scene that was used often to promote the series, Chuck and Kelly do a tease for the newscast, hurling insults at each other as soon as they are off the air. When Chuck precedes a missive with an upper crust, over-enunciated “Good Lord!”, it was straight out of the Frasier Crane vocabulary book.

But as the episode wore on, Grammer showed colors of the character that were decidedly un-Crane-like. Where Frasier was a life-long nerd, Darling exhibits far more confidence, like there isn’t a woman in American who wouldn’t want some quality time with him. And while Frasier was an intellectual, Darling is more street smart, at least if the street is Main Street in suburbia. Grammer can’t really put the ghost of Frasier totally to rest (give him a break; counting reruns, the character has been on the screen longer than most of the cast of “High School Musical” has been alive), but he is able to separate himself enough to let “Back to You” work on its own merits.

As for Heaton, I was never a “Raymond” fan, so I may not be the one to judge here, but she seems different enough in “Back to You” so that those who like her won’t be disappointed. Willard is, not surprisingly, outstanding. He was born to play the not-too-bright-but-friendly, preening, ex-jock (as he did in “Best in Show”), and his quirky, off-beat performance is a great counterweight to the more traditional sitcom leads. Burrell and Field are also effective, avoiding overplaying the jokes and recognizing the subtleties in their potentially stock characters.

The only misstep in the cast is Josh Gad as Ryan, the 26-year-old news director with an Internet background, who is so youthful in appearance that Chuck, upon his arrival, mistakes him for an intern and asks him to park his car. (Upon finding out his true position, Chuck still expects Ryan to park the car.) Gad’s Ryan seems to be on a different show than the rest of the cast, huffing and puffing around the set (with sweat stains covering most of his shirt) like some kind of nerdy fat guy cliche. It’s not Gad’s fault completely, as the exasperated, in-over-his-head news director seems like a 21st Century, dumbed down version of Miles Silverberg of “Murphy Brown.” But something will have to be done in the future with this character.

At first, I thought “Back to You” would struggle being compared to the classic newsroom sitcoms, “Murphy Brown” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” (one of the greatest shows ever). It’s not fair to judge from the pilot, but “Back to You” doesn’t seem to be destined for that lofty company. Then I realized that most younger viewers have probably not seen either “Murphy” or “Mary,” so maybe that won’t even be an issue.

In the end, the real hurdle for “Back to You” is to avoid being thought of as stale and musty, and everyone seems to be working hard to prevent that from happening. There is a moment early in the pilot when Chuck and Kelly walk from the news room to the anchor desk together, and they are followed, seemingly with a Steadicam, in a shot that looked more like an episode of a single-camera half-hour like “Scrubs” or “Sports Night” than like “Frasier.” It was just a few seconds, but in that moment, it’s as if “Back to You” was reassuring its young, Fox audience, “We’re not your parents’ sitcom!”

The bottom line, though, is that “Back to You” is funny, and definitely entertaining. It has a sophistication of storytelling (there is a twist at the end that I had not seen in any of the promos this summer), and the show, though not afraid to be silly, ends on a kind of sweet note. I think there is some real potential here, and I am actually kind of excited to see where “Back to You” goes in the coming weeks.

Will it be enough? For the sake of the future of sitcoms, let’s hope so. It would be nice if the debut of a multi-camera sitcom didn’t warrant a column.