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Formative TV Experience No. 7: Chariots of Eggs
Oy, Letterman

Good Sitcom, Bad Sitcom

  • 10/1/09 at 4:10 PM

Last night was kind of Goofus/Gallant night on ABC, wasn't it?

Goofus was Hank, starring Kelsey Grammar as a downsized CEO forced to live in a normal home.

Gallant was The Middle, starring Patricia Heaton as a completely relatable worn-down working mother of three in Indiana.

Goofus Family Sitcom consisted of acrid TV clichés: the brittle, eye-rolling wife, the wisecracking brats, the dumb-lug brother-in-law.

Gallant Family Sitcom sweetly and efficiently characterized three idiosyncratic kids — a sulky jock, a dorkish daughter, and a truly odd little boy who whispers under his breath — and sketched out a realistically warm marriage.

Goofus had not a single working joke. Seriously. As sheer sitcom un-craftmanship, it was almost shocking, making the off-putting Cougartown (which at least vibrates with genuine sexual anxiety) look like Chaucer by comparison. Even basic sight gags (sex in a fire-engine bed?) fell flat. It was like a flashback to the worst of the bland eighties family comedies, marbling snotty jabs with fake "we love each other" moments.

Like Goofus, Gallant wasn't particularly edgy or avant-garde — it wasn't Roseanne or Arrested Development or even the terrific Modern Family (which everyone must watch! Second episode so good! With a few tiny exceptions!) But it had rippling arrays of jokes that worked, including throwaway bits like an argument about why it's not okay to put wet things in the dryer, an awkward parent-teacher conference, not to mention every single interaction with that "slightly dented" youngest kid whose best friend is his backpack. Despite that sitcom-y plotline about showing up on the wrong day in a costume, Frankie didn't feel like a cartoon — and unlike Hank's, her ambivalence about her family's demands felt like the real thing, not a smarmy facsimile.

I hope people watch it, because this is not really the kind of show critics ordinarily rave about; it's not especially sophisticated like Modern Family, with its Office-esque mockumentary rhythms and urbane ensemble. But it offers something just as valuable: It's the first family sitcom in a long, long time that isn't a cynical misfire, like Motherhood or last year's repulsive Surviving Suburbia. Less stylized than Malcolm in the Middle (its closest analogue), less nihilistic than Everybody Loves Raymond, it actually felt like it was about a family, funny bits included.

Yeah, I'm a big sap today.

(By the way, what was with the "All the Single Ladies" montage in Cougartown? Is this now a requirement for every show? Because I seriously don't want to catch Peggy Olson gyrating around in tights.)