New family comedies focus on crazy parents

By Robert Bianco

Apparently, parenting drives you crazy.

That certainly seems to be the message conveyed by tonight's three new family comedies, which vary in quality but are similar in approach. OnThe Millers, a divorced man's life is upended when his meddling mom moves in with him. OnWelcome to the Family, two sets of parents' lives are rocked when their teenage kids announce they're having a baby together. And onSean, a single gay man's life takes a turn when he gets sandwiched between his live-in teenage daughter and his judgmental mother.

Sitcoms, of course, were ever thus: Even Ozzie and Harriet had weeks when they wanted to strangle little Ricky. What stopped them from doing so, aside from the law and '50s sitcom conventions, is love - a shared bond that continues to provide the undercurrent for most family comedies, tonight's included.

Bonds aside, the most promising of the three isThe Millers,based on the talent involved - a fab four made up of producer Greg Garcia and stars Will Arnett, Beau Bridges and Margo Martindale - and the story they've launched, more than the pilot produced. If nothing else, it seems set to provide the best, most empathetic role yet for Arnett, who plays Nathan Miller, a local TV reporter who recently dumped his wife and gained a single pad.

Or so he thinks, until Nathan's addlepated father Tom (Bridges) decides to leave his controlling mother Carol (Martindale). Dad moves in with Nathan's sister Debbie and her husband Adam (Jayma Mays and Nelson Franklin, late and wise additions to the cast). Mom moves in with Nathan and proceeds to ruin his first bachelor party, in a broad scene that ends with the funniest single set-piece in any of the season's pilots.

Arnett is a master of fluster, and Bridges is befuddled charm personified. The revelation, though, for those who only know her from her Emmy-winning dramatic work, is Martindale, whose comic timing rivals the best in the business.

Like most CBS comedies,The Millersis going for big laughs. And like many, it goes a bit too far. There's a little too much sniping, and far too many jokes about passing gas. Not that gas can't be funny. But a little, as they say, goes a long way.

WhereThe Millersis going for broad comedy,Welcome to the Family's approach is quieter, particularly when Mike O'Malley, an increasingly welcome TV presence, is throwing away some comic aside. There are laughs; they just tend to be gentler.

Based on a premise as ancient asAbie's Irish Rose, Welcomestars O'Malley and Mary McCormack as parents who are thrilled that their underachieving teenage daughter Molly (Ella Rae Peck) is about to make an unexpected exit for college. And then they find out she's pregnant, which also comes as a surprise to Molly's Stanford-bound Latino boyfriend (Joseph Haro) and his parents (Ricardo Chavira and Justina Machado).

The two dads immediately hate each other, which provides the conflict. The humor, however, mostly comes from O'Malley and McCormack. There are no awful characters and no bad actors; this is a cute little show that exceeds expectations. What it's yet to provide, though, is a compelling reason to watch, and in a competitive TV environment, that could be a fatal lapse.

On the other hand, "cute" still putsWelcomeaboveSean Saves the World, a return-to-TV vehicle for Sean Hayes (Will & Grace) that continually mistakes frantic for funny. And that's despite the presence of not just Hayes but of one of our best stage and TV actors, Linda Lavin.

Hayes plays Sean, a divorced dad taking care of his daughter with some unwanted help from his mother (Lavin). His world also includes a new, insanely eccentric boss (Thomas Lennon) and a co-worker and best friend (Megan Hilty).

Hayes is a TV star through and through, with an enjoyably distinctive delivery and a gift for physical comedy. But he's being pushed too hard to carry the show, and he's pushing too hard in response. Watching him struggle to get laughs out of a novelty-store weasel, or by climbing out of a bathroom window, is painful.

The best part about this family comedy is, indeed, the family, especially when Hayes and Lavin are sharing the screen. The workplace, however, seems to exist in another world, where no one and nothing is at all amusing. Dump the job and stay closer to home, and we'll all be happier.

Anything else would be crazy.


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