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).
The humor is driven mostly by a relentless slapstick vulgarity, particularly concerning the flatulence and sex habits of parents. If you’ve got a high tolerance for those sorts of jokes, it is funny indeed. If not, write to CBS and demand compliance with a suggestion offered in one of the “news you can use” segments broadcast by Arnett’s airhead-TV-newsman character: “The next time your kid blurts out a naughty word, instead of reaching for the soap, maybe send him outside for a little public humiliation.”
NBC’s Sean Saves the World is a variant on another TV staple, the bachelor dad. But Toto, we’re not in My Three Sons territory anymore. Sean Hayes of Will & Grace fame plays a gay man suddenly charged with raising a daughter he fathered 14 years ago during a trying-to-go-straight marriage.
Devoid of homemaking skills, confounded by a precocious teenager who asks such questions as “If you’re gay, how did you and mom have sex?” and exasperated by the survivalist advice (“fish have it right, just drop ‘em and go”) of his own pushy mother (Linda Lavin, Alice), Hayes is a study in domestic dysfunction. And things aren’t going so well at work, either, where he’s confronted by a prissily fascist boss whose approach to life is summed up in his approving remark about a new chair: “It’s like sitting on a pile of baby seals.”
Sean Saves the World is like a comedy cruise to self-discovery, with both Sean and his daughter learning of strengths and weaknesses they didn’t know they had, the process punctuated with keenly funny dialogue and precision timing. It is also an indelible mark of how far the television portrayal of gay characters has come in the past 15 years.
In Will & Grace, Hayes’ character was a prancing burlesque stereotype, the gay equivalent of blackface. In Sean Saves the World, he’s identifiably gay, yet a normal human being. The fact that nobody’s calling this show a milestone is the best evidence that it really is.