Back to You -- An early look
I guess if you're trying to revive the dying sitcom, a good way to start is by assembling a top-notch team. And Fox's new Wednesday night comedy, Back to You, does just that.
Co-stars Patricia Heaton and Kelsey Grammer are sitcom royalty with seven Emmys between them. Executive producer/director James Burrows (Cheers, Frasier, Friends, Taxi, Mary Tyler Moore) and writers Steven Levitan (Frasier, Just Shoot Me, Wings) and Christopher Lloyd (Frasier, Golden Girls) also have numerous Emmys and their names are associated with some of the best shows in sitcom history. You put the show on Fox, a network known for taking chances and being edgier, and it seems like a slam dunk, right?
Not quite. There's no such thing as a "sure thing" in television. And while Back to You is an adequate and professionally crafted comedy, it doesn't quite re-invent the wheel or make me want to run to the window, open it wide, and scream "The sitcom LIVES! Long live the sitcom!"
Grammer stars as Chuck Darling, a self-centered, womanizing anchorman in a downward career spiral. After a ten-year-absence, he returns to WURG in Pittsburgh after an embarrassing on-air rant wound up on YouTube and ended his career in Los Angeles. Heaton is an uptight anchorwoman (and single mom), Kelly Carr, who isn't too happy to share the news desk again -- especially with a preening windbag like Chuck. But wait, the lady doth protest too much. Could it be that she is secretly in love with Darling? We're told that Chuck and Kelly have chemistry both on-screen and off. But it would be nice to see that chemistry, rather than be told it's there.
I'm not saying Grammer and Heaton don't have chemistry. There's definitely potential. Creating that chemistry and making the audience believe it should be easy for a couple of old pros like Heaton and Grammer. But the writers need to step back a bit and let the actors do what they do best. While Heaton and Grammer are both skilled performers, they do come with some pretty heavy sitcom baggage. To their credit, they are able to shed their famous alter-egos -- for the most part. There was only one time (Chuck and Kelly are bickering at the news desk) when I thought, "Hey, why is Frasier Crane arguing with Debra Barone?"
Unfortunately, Heaton and Grammer don't do such a great job of finding their new characters. It's almost as if they're trying so hard to subdue their inner Frasier and Debra that they've kept Chuck and Kelly completely nondescript and bland. The characters are almost too likable. They don't have enough flaws. We're told Chuck is a self-centered womanizer, and yet we see no proof of that. If he's such a womanizing skirt chaser, why isn't there a parade of women in his hotel room? We're told Kelly is an uptight control freak and again, nothing she does proves that. I think we're just supposed to believe she's uptight because she finds Chuck's alleged womanizing distasteful. And she's a control freak merely by being a single mom/career gal. Again, don't tell us who these characters are -- SHOW US.
The rest of the workplace is comprised of the usual oddball, quirky characters who only reside in sitcomland. Josh Gad plays the young, overstressed news director, Ryan Church, who proved himself by running the station's internet division (yup, he's a chubby geek). Ayda Field (Studio 60) plays the sexy weather woman, Montana Diaz Herrera, who seems to be present just so Fox can get in their mandatory boob jokes (it's amazing that sexual harassment doesn't exist in sitcom workplaces). FYI, boob jokes do not equal "innovative entertainment." Fred Willard (whom I usually love) plays the station's sportscaster, Marsh McGinley, in a tired variation of every other character he's ever played. And to make matters worse, he's stolen Herb Tarlek's wardrobe (gee, that's original). Finally, Ty Burrell (In Good Company, Out of Practice) plays Gary Crezyzewski (don't try to pronounce it, that's the joke), the ambitious, but disrespected field reporter with his eye on the coveted anchor seat he's never going to sit in.
There's a lot of talent working on this show, so of course I had high expectations. The writing isn't nearly as good as I hoped it would be. And Burrows, as director, should know better than to reuse a scene and joke (of a field reporter blowing away in a torrential downpour) that he already used in last year's lackluster The Class. I would hope that this caliber of writers could come up with better and more original material. Lazy writing and directing is inexcusable. And even the greatest acting can't transform uninspired material into comedy gold.
Not to say it's all bad. I actually found the pilot to be fairly entertaining. And I'm glad to see Heaton and Grammer back on TV. It's where they're meant to be. However, the supporting players are written as one-dimensional observers who provide zingers and punchlines, but not much else. I suppose they'll develop more layers in time (or not, but I'm willing to give Back to You the benefit of the doubt). In all fairness, it's hard to judge a show just by its pilot (there's so much setup) and even harder now that we expect runaway hits right out of the gate. Some shows, like 30 Rock, start off shaky and only get stronger as they find their balance. Back to You is already set on a solid foundation, and if the writing and acting gels, it could get even better. And I'm rooting for it to get better. Because we need more comedies. And even though Back to You didn't have me rolling on the floor, it did provide a couple of chuckles. And unlike The Class, it wasn't painful to watch.
Back to You is simply a high-profile, old school, traditional multi-camera sitcom. Which isn't a bad thing, if that's what you're looking for. Also, on the positive side, Back to You is the type of show you can watch with your entire family since it is tamer, and less vulgar than most current sitcoms (although there are some sexual references, and weenie and boob jokes). Considering this is Fox, I actually expected the "ick factor" to be a lot worse.
However, since this is a traditional sitcom, there's nothing magical, innovative, or edgy here. There's nothing that we haven't seen a dozen times before. It's just another workplace sitcom with those "tired rhythms, forced laughs, and bogus characters" that Ken Levine referred to earlier. And honestly, I sometimes wonder why networks bother to develop such material when we can just enjoy re-runs of Mary Tyler Moore (or Murphy Brown or WKRP in Cincinnati) rather than watch their pale imitators.
I think Fox will continue to promote the heck out of this show, and it could stick around long enough to find a decent size audience. If Fox puts it on after American Idol, it might even find a large audience and have a long life. But I'm willing to be bet, Back to You isn't the show that resuscitates sitcoms or changes the face of television. If anything, Back to You proves that sitcoms might not be officially dead, but they sure aren't blazing any new or exciting trails either.
Back to You premieres September 19, 2007 and airs on Wednesday nights at 8 PM before 'til Death on Fox.