Less than a decade ago, as Friends and Frasier were ending their long runs, network programmers were gloomily proclaiming the end of television comedy, killed by cheap reality shows and YouTube cute-kitten videos.
You can now officially put that on the same what-were-they-thinking shelf with the Maya calendar end-of-the-world predictions. This fall’s TV season, which has already produced half a dozen extremely funny sitcoms, puts an exclamation point on the revival Wednesday night with three more.
The best of the witty bunch is NBC’s Welcome to the Family, which will probably raise some hackles with its light-hearted look at teenage pregnancy. (Its cultural clash between a family of working-class Hispanics and an another of Anglo professionals is also bound to offend somebody, somewhere.) But it’s hard to stay mad at a show this waggish.
As the show opens, Junior Hernandez (Joseph Haro, Glee) is graduating from high school with honors and a full scholarship to Stanford. His parents, Miguel (Ricardo A. Chavira, Desperate Housewives) and Lisette (Justina Machado, Six Feet Under), are so proud they’ve even outfitted the family dog in a Stanford sweatshirt.
Across town, ditzy slacker Molly Yoder (Ella Rae Peck, Gossip Girl) is also getting a diploma. The reaction of her doctor dad, Dan (Mike O’Malley, Glee), and New Ager mom, Caroline (Mary McCormack, The West Wing), is more one of relief. Their highest expectation is that she’ll make it to Arizona State “for three to seven years,” as her dad puts it.
But both grads’ plans go off the rails with the news that Molly is pregnant. (Which is a surprise to her parents in more ways than one. “They don’t even know you exist,” she informs Junior. “No offense.”) Instead, the kids get engaged. Their families’ understandable distress — imagine learning that your daughter is abandoning college plans to embark on a career in the nostril-piercing industry — is only compounded by the fact that they take an immediate dislike to one another.
What makes Welcome to the Family interesting, and rather sweet, is that it confounds expectations. The difficulties between the Hernandezes and the Yoders have less to do with ethnicity than class expectations and plain old personal grudges. “When did this become about me having issues with Latinos?” grouses Dan of Miguel. “I have an issue with that Latino.” There are no Archie Bunkers in this crowd, just basically nice people struggling to overcome preconceptions they didn’t know they had.
If there’s an underlying weakness to Welcome to the Family, it’s the unavoidable thought that a marriage like Molly and Justin’s is almost certain to end in frustrated ambitions, economic deficiency and incompatibility. Maybe they’ll eventually stumbled onto network stablemate Michael J. Fox’s old DeLorean and jet back to the 1950s, when being 17 and in love might have been enough.
CBS offers a version of the blended-family sitcom that cuts across generational rather than ethnic lines. In The Millers, hard times have driven a divorcing, retirement-age mother (Margo Martindale, Justified) and father (Beau Bridges) back into the homes, respectively, of their son (Will Arnett, Arrested Development) and daughter (Jayma Mays, Glee).