September 20, 2007

TV: Back to You (Fox, Wednesday 8/7)

Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton return to television, in a sitcom that Fox hopes will help broaden its audience beyond its relatively young core.

Grammer is news anchor Chuck Darling, who had been climbing the local news ladder until an embarassing on-air meltdown in Los Angeles forced him to return in disgrace to Pittsburgh, where his career began. He's reteamed with former partner Kelly Carr (Heaton), who isn't exactly thrilled to see him back, because she'd had the spotlight mostly to herself in his absence.

Both stars are playing variations on personas established in their previous shows. Chuck is more of a womanizer than Frasier Crane, but they share a tendency to pompous windbaggery; Heaton's Kelly is the same pushy control freak she played on Everybody Loves Raymond.

There's a fine group of actors playing the rest of the newsroom team. Fred Willard does his usual oblivious buffoon as sports guy Marsh McGinley, but if you must have an oblivious buffoon, no one does it as well. Ayda Field is weather girl Montana Diaz Herrera, the obligatory bombshell Latina ditz of this sitcom season. Josh Gad has the most thankless role -- ho, ho, ho, look at the fat boy sweat -- as the young news director. Ty Burrell is put-upon field reporter Gary Crezyzewski (I had to cut-and-paste that one from the Fox site; I didn't dare try to type it myself), whose unpronounceable last name will clearly be a running joke; I'm not sure that even Gary pronounces it the same way twice.

So there's lots of talent on hand, and America has certainly shown a fondness over the years for sitcoms set in the world of broadcasting (off the top of my head: The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, WKRP in Cincinnati, Frasier, Sports Night, 30 Rock...). But this one feels a bit stale somehow. Maybe it's that the setup-punchline-setup-punchline rhythm is such a throwback when the best current sitcoms have gotten beyond it; maybe it's that Grammer and Heaton's characters are so close to what they've done before. Maybe it's just that my expectations from this cast and creative team were higher

The pilot wasn't awful, by any stretch, and I'd like to hope that the show will improve as it finds its legs, but as it stands, it isn't a show that anyone's ever going to be really excited by. It feels like a show that will draw perfectly respectable ratings without ever winning awards (though Grammer and Heaton will probably be nominated for everything just on the strength of name recognition), and we'll all be a bit surprised in a few years to realize that it's been on for five years already. Back to You -- this year's version of Home Improvement or According to Jim.

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