Laughs tracked: Fall TV sitcom roundup

A to Z - Season PilotBy JIM SABATASO | STAFF

With the fall television season well underway, it’s time to pick some of this year’s winners and losers. Here are my quick-hit reviews of five of this fall’s new sitcoms.

A to Z

Created by: Ben Queen
Starring: Ben Feldman, Cristin Milioti
Where to watch: Thursdays at 9:30 p.m. on NBC

As narrator Katy Segal declares at the top of each episode: “Andrew and Zelda will date for 8 months, 2 weeks, six days, and 1 hour. This television program is the comprehensive account of their relationship — from A to Z.” With the premise clearly stated, what follows is a rom-com in painfully slow motion. A to Z is spunky, sweet, and too cute by half without any real substance. Occasional moments of cleverness are undercut by the show’s compulsion to pat itself on the back for doing so.

As Andrew and Zelda, Feldmen and Milioti are attractive and affable. The supporting cast, however, feels out of place, like they’ve been imported from another, zanier sitcom. The whole effort comes off as contrived. While this show is not for me, I can see more romantic types getting swept up in it. Also, anyone looking for a How I Met Your Mother will find something to like here — though, I’d argue HIMYM is the better iteration of this premise.

The Verdict: A to Z is sappy but, ultimately, harmless. There are far worse things you could (and probably do) watch. For those looking for a sharper take on modern love and relationships, seek out the excellent You’re the Worst on FX.

Bad Judge

Created by: Chad Kultgen, Anne Heche
Starring: Kate Walsh, Ryan Hansen, John Ducey, Miguel Sandoval
Where to watch: Thursdays at 9 p.m. on NBC

Sometimes I wonder if NBC is borrowing a page from Jack Donaghy and trying to destroy itself on purpose. Nine o’clock on a Thursday was once the marquee spot in the network’s unstoppable Must See TV lineup. 30 RockThe OfficeSeinfeldWill & GraceFrasierCheers — these weren’t just the best sitcoms NBC had to offer, they were some of the best of all time.

And now into this vaunted timeslot enters “Bad Judge.” The premise is simple: Kate Walsh plays a hard-living judge who manages to be good at her job despite her poor life choices. With Will Ferrell and Adam McKay as executive producers, this show seems like it could have had potential in the vein of Eastbound and Down. Allegedly, NBC got cold feet about committing to having a female Kenny Powers on network TV so it smoothed out the edges some. The result is a boring, unfunny mess of a sitcom lacking in direction and voice.

The Verdict: Skip it. If you want to see misanthropes behaving badly, The League is currently in the middle of a solid season FXX (Wednesdays at 10 p.m.).

Marry Me

Created by: David Caspe
Starring: Ken Marino, Casey Wilson
Where to watch: Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC

So maybe things aren’t so bleak at NBC if they had enough sense to green-light this sweet, smart sitcom by David Caspe. Caspe, of the excellent, doomed Happy Endings, is given another chance to show he can nail relationships without sinking into bland sentimentality like A to Z.

Two episodes in, it’s hard to tell where the show will go. So it looks like the show will Marino and Wilson’s bumpy road to marriage with all the ensuing hilarity. But it’s likely the premise will be abandoned as the show settles into hangout territory à la Happy Endings, which had a similar relationship MacGuffin at its start. And that’s just fine. Of all the pilots I’ve watched this season, this one was easily the strongest.

Marino (Party Down, Wet Hot American Summer) and Wilson (Saturday Night Live, Happy Endings) are great comic actors with an easy chemistry. The supporting cast is equally game, and laughably superior to their analogues in A to Z. Time will tell if the actors are doing most of the work here; though, with Caspe at the helm, it’s a safe bet the writing will hold up.

The Verdict: Check it out, but steel yourself for disappointment when NBC doesn’t pick it up next season.

Mulaney

Created by: John Mulaney
Starring: John Mulaney, Nasim Pedrad, Martin Short, Elliott Gould
Where to watch: Sundays at 9:30 p.m. on Fox

Oh, Mulaney — sigh… I want to like this show so bad. It has all the components of a great sitcom: a funny, talented creator, a solid cast, a simple premise. Unfortunately, those parts are greater than the whole. John Mulaney is a student of classic television. His old-timey persona would have been right at home on the set of The Dick van Dyke Show alongside Rose Marie and Morey Amsterdam. Mulaney, then, is his attempt to bring that aesthetic forward. As such, the show is shot in front of a live audience in the multicam format. It’s a break in form from most current sitcoms that can work if the material holds up. Here, however, that’s not the case.

A struggling standup in New York, the fictional Mulaney draws heavily from the real Mulaney’s act. That’s a good thing; Mulaney, a former SNL writer, is a great comic whose 2012 special, New in Town, is one of the best hours of comedy I’ve seen in the last few years.

But the show feels forced and contrived. The specter of Seinfeld looms large here, from the apartment setting and the annoying Kramer-esque drug dealer, to curious girlfriend nicknames. While I get that the show is playing with tropes in an attempt to pay homage to classic sitcoms, its earnestness ultimately does it in. The show feels derivative rather than clever. If it was a bit more self-aware or meta, like 30 Rock, it might work out, but Mulaney’s resistance to irony results in a mediocre comedy instead of something more.

The Verdict: I really want this show to succeed, but I just can’t get onboard.

Black-ish

Created by: Kenya Barris
Starring: Anthony Anderson, Tracee Ellis Ross, Laurence Fishburne
Where to watch: Wednesdays at 9:30 p.m. on ABC

Black-ish is probably the most talked about network sitcom this fall. And for good reason. Anderson plays Andre, a successful ad exec, who along with his physician wife raises their four children in upper-middle class California. Though they have achieved success financially, professionally, and socially, Andre begins to realize that success has come at the cost of his family’s black identity.

The pilot then serves as an entry point into this family. We are firmly in domestic sitcom territory here so comparisons to The Cosby Show and Modern Family are to be expected, but the show is confidently doing its own thing. It’s funny without ever leaning too hard on race. Similar to “Cosby,” the show works to hold up, celebrate, and comment on African-American culture without getting histrionics or didactic.

Rather, it focuses on common family struggles within a family that happens to be black. A recent episode saw pulled a Freaky Friday with the parents reversing roles. It’s an old sitcom staple, but updated here with the observation that fathers tend to be praised for doing the bare minimum while mothers’ deeds go unnoticed. It’s far from trenchant, but it’s a satisfying twist on an old trope.

The Verdict: Watch this show.

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