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Cable Sitcoms Get Sharp
July 18, 2012  | By Diane Werts  | 1 comment
 

These days, cable's got the comedy mojo.

Thursday's arrival of super new TBS sitcom Sullivan & Son confirms it. But we were getting there already with last month's premieres of ABC Family's Baby Daddy and TV Land's The Soul Man.

Say what?
I hear skeptics howling. These shows are GOOD? (You'd never know it from the promos.)

Yes. They are. Please, take a look. Sullivan's adult humor rocks in any universe, but the other two, too, look pretty sharp compared to the "clever"-coms with which the broadcast networks have tried to reinvent the wheel in recent seasons.

There's a level of craftsmanship in these shows — all three of them, traditional live-audience sitcoms, and at first glance seemingly simple, high-concept creations — that many of the networks' "ambitious" outings simply can't match.

These cable comedies know exactly what they want to do. And, efficiently, they do it. Shockeroo!

That's a more complex undertaking in Sullivan & Son (premiering Thursday, July 19 at 10 p.m. ET on TBS, with a 10:30 ET bonus episode this week), which does so many things, and does them so well, that it's stunning. It's hard to appreciate all this show succeeds at while watching — you're too busy being rocked by unexpected belly laughs. (Remember those?)

Show star Steve Byrne is a half-Korean, half-Irish standup comic who's the best crossover surprise since Ray Romano on Everybody Loves Raymond, some 15 years ago. Romano delivered a sort of Seinfeld with kids and (grand)parents, focused on the minutiae of everyday extended-nuclear family life, but with deeper emotional resonance (and relatability). Byrne reaches even further back, with cocreator Rob Long, who cut his sitcom teeth on Cheers in its early-'90s final seasons. They give us something close to an All in the Family for today's multicultural society. And it's set in a bar. Did someone mention Cheers?

The laid-back Byrne mostly plays straight man — though he sometimes gives as good as he gets — to a colorful collection of character actors recalling the quality of the Barney Miller squadroom. TV Steve starts Thursday's pilot half-hour as a Manhattan corporate attorney and ends it back in Pittsburgh, buying his Irish father's bar, in a deal negotiated to the death by his Korean mom.

It isn't even eight minutes into the show — when you hear barfly Brian Doyle-Murray (hello, Bakersfield P.D.!) casually ranting about "the coloreds" — that you know you're not in TV Kansas anymore. There's nothing mean here — it's even less worked up than Archie Bunker ever got — but there is a level of reality, and frankness, that's really startling. Even better: Steve's reaction. "God, I miss this," he moans longingly to his "scary New York lady" girlfriend, who's appalled by the human stew of his working-class neighborhood tavern.

Doyle-Murray is actually preceded in the pilot by Christine Ebersole (the Broadway fave seen in Royal Pains), who knocks the loose-drunk-lady stereotype out of the park and around the block. Her turbocharged appearance kicks the show into a higher gear that Doyle-Murray pushes into overdrive. Fueling the engine are Steve's parents — Dan Lauria (The Wonder Years) as the live-and-let-live dad, and Jodi Long (Margaret Cho's All-American Girl) as the laser-beam mom.

These old pros are joined by young pros like Owen Benjamin, as Ebersole's airhead son, actually making that hoary role something freshly precise. Add sitdown bar cameos by standups like Ahmed Ahmed, Roy Wood Jr. and Brian Scolaro, and you've got folks who know from funny.

So do the writers and directors, sustaining a raucous tone with a zippy rhythm that again speaks to craftsmanship. Sullivan looks good, moves well, smartly makes its points, and just gets on with it. The pilot, though, is a bit less polished than the two succeeding episodes I've seen (all that set-up), so keep watching. The show hits sitcom memes and cliches only to illuminate the flesh-and-blood human pulse that powered them in the first place. It's not trying to "reinvent" anything. It's just demonstrating why some formula things work so well.

If, of course, you do them right. And Sullivan does, giddy with its own gusto, zinging off unlikely punchlines, and name-checking its own peculiar pop-culture touchstones (Price Is Right rules in bar games!). Truly, you just never know what this show is going to say or do next. Every now and then, you can actually guess a punchline, and it's a shock, and you notice it, because it happens so seldom.

That's not really the case on those other two recent arrivals, ABC Family's Baby Daddy (Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m. ET; left) and TV Land's The Soul Man (Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET; below right). They slickly mix ha-ha with heart, in capable ways that feel comfortable rather than surprising or challenging. Not that there's anything wrong with that. A well-made, mainstream, reassuring sitcom is still a good sitcom, even if it's not the ideal show sought by "worth-watching" viewers. These two openly sentimental shows punch the clock on-time and do their jobs just fine, providing work to actors, writers and directors who haven't had much chance to practice their craft through all the broadcast network flailing in search of The Next Great Sitcom.

Truly, it's here now, at least for people who like a good bracing comedy kick in the pants, without regard to political correctness — which actually means ooh-I'm-so-afraid-I-won't-say-anything. Sullivan & Son gets it that we live in a world where "colorblind" just means blind to our multifaceted modern realities, to people's differences in perspective, to gaps in knowledge or life experience, to divergent concepts of social status or success. It gets that genuine comedy comes from character. It also gets that viewers are grownups (and if you don't think your older kids think that already, you've got another think coming).

Byrne and Long, along with diverse producers like Brenda Hsueh (who wrote premiere night's ballsy second episode), aren't afraid of harder edges to jokes or storylines. (Or of rude/lewd humor, mostly un-cheap.) Check out next week's episode (July 26), when the bar learns exactly how Steve's parents got together in Korea at the same time they do. It's a rowdy, bawdy script — oh, heck, they all are — that could have turned rank or mushy, but makes warm emotional statements with slap-in-the-face laughter instead.

Great job, guys. Now about my interracial marriage…
 
 
 
 
 
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1 Comments
 
 
Sarah
I knew I would like Soul Man because TV Land seems to know what they're doing with sitcoms but I was so surprise to like Baby Daddy, it souded like a bad idea but I found myself likeing its heart.
Jul 19, 2012   |  Reply
 
 
 
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