By Robert Bianco
Spring TV deserves more than a fall hangover.
Not thatHow To Live With Your Parentswould have been much better in September, but at least the setup would have felt less painfully similar to shows we've already seen.
The struggling single mother starting life anew with daughter in tow?The New NormalandBen & Kate, just this fall alone. The adult child living at home?Mike & Molly, Raising Hope, $#*! My Dad SaysandRetired at 35,to name a recent few. Adult child coping with crazy parents? Pretty much every sitcom sinceThe Beverly Hillbillies.
Granted, there's nothing new or even necessarily awful about TV shows sharing plot points. What's more damaging forParentsis that it inexplicably has borrowed a tone - a snide hyper-reality that's forced without actually being funny - from ABC comedies likeSuburgatoryandHappy Endingsthat are far less popular than the network needs them to be. Why go down that road again when it's already proven to be a dead end?
Still, if you must, at least you're traveling with a very adept cast. Sarah Chalke stars as Polly, a young mother who leaves her ne'er-do-well husband, packs up her daughter (Rachel Eggleston), and moves in with her mom Elaine (Elizabeth Perkins) and stepfather Max (Brad Garrett). They're eccentrics, which they establish in the opening by answering the door barely clothed - because of course that's what people do, at least on this kind of sitcom.
It doesn't take long for the show to pencil in the family dynamics. Elaine is an uncensored, irresponsible free spirit who will do and say almost anything, which in typical sitcom fashion means talking ad nauseam about her sex life. Max has his own boundary issues, but compared to Elaine, is the voice of reason. Polly, as contrast demands, is overly responsible and repressed, and in danger of passing that repression on to her child.
In the premiere, that all plays out in the inevitable bad first-post-divorce-date. Having chosen her parents as babysitters (despite Elaine's admission that she can't remember whether she's ever given a child a bath), Polly then immediately regrets her decision. If you're surprised that chaos ensues, congratulations. Welcome to your first sitcom.
Though you might not believe it,Parentsis autobiographical - or so creator Claudia Lonow insists. The lesson here is that autobiography, when done poorly, can seem as detached from reality as any work of fiction.
Still, if the lines are never actually funny, some of them are amusing, and if the writing doesn't always work inParents'favor, the cast does. Chalke, as usual, is almost effortlessly appealing, while Perkins expends what must be considerable effort to imbue some humanity in a character who could have been unbearably arch. Rounding out the star trio, and given a softer-than-usual role that fits comfortably between those extremes, Garrett does some of his most likable TV work yet.
They're very good - though if they prove good enough to carry this show past spring to next fall, it will be the only real surpriseParentshas to offer.