September 15, 2013

TV: Back in the Game (Wed 8:30, ABC)

Premieres September 25; pilot currently available on Hulu.

Three generations of athletes in conflict are at the heart of Back in the Game, which features one very bad casting choice, and one terrific supporting performance.

Terry "The Cannon" Gannon (James Caan) is an ex-athlete who never quite found success in professional baseball. His daughter, Terry Jr. (Maggie Lawson) was an All-American college softball player. After a nasty divorce, she and her son Danny (Griffin Gluck) have been forced to move in with The Cannon.

Terry would love to keep Danny from getting as messed up by sports, and by her father's win-at-any-cost philosophy, as she feels she's been, but the kid wants to play Little League, and Terry winds up coaching a team with Danny and all of the other misfits.

The bad casting choice is Caan, who doesn't have the lightness that a sitcom requires. The nastiness and hostility he's playing might work in a cable drama about a difficult father-daughter relationship, but in a show like this, there needs to be some hint that he's a decent guy at heart; Caan's playing him as a completely unrepentant bastard.

On the plus side is Lenora Crichlow, playing Terry's new friend, the wealthy widow Lulu. Lulu doesn't always quite understand what's going on, and she certainly doesn't understand baseball ("I'll pay for all the equipment" for Terry's team, she offers. "Mats, tights, sticks with ribbons -- the whole shebang."), but her heart's in the right place, and Crichlow plays her less as stupid than as not terribly interested in most of what's going on around her.

Lawson can be very likable (as she's proven for the last several years on Psych), but she's at her best when she's got an equal to bounce off. Her relationships with her father, and with the jerk in charge of the local Little League (Ben Koldyke), are all about anger and hostility; and Lulu's not quite connected enough to reality to be the equal partner she needs. Without a likable central relationship to play, she's floundering a bit, and not getting to show off her strengths.

On the whole, the show lands just to the plus side of mediocre. It's got a comfy time slot between The Middle and Modern Family, which will probably be enough to keep it around for a full season, but I'd be surprised to see it survive to a second.

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