Tuned In: New series, episodes on track after Olympics

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With the Sochi Winter Olympics coming to a close Sunday, prepare for an onslaught of new and returning TV series in the next two weeks.

NBC kicks it off with a preview of "About a Boy" at 11:07 p.m. Saturday on WPXI and a preview of "Growing Up Fisher" at 10:30 p.m. Sunday following the Olympics closing ceremony. (A review of "About a Boy" was published in Thursday's Post-Gazette.)

"Growing Up Fisher" stars J.K. Simmons ("The Closer," "Oz") as Mel Fisher, a blind man who hid his disability for years until his divorce from his wife, Joyce (Jenna Elfman). Now Mel has a guide dog who's usurping the role previously played by his sixth-grade son, Henry (Eli Baker), who gets jealous of the dog in Sunday's sweet-but-not-saccharine series premiere.

Perhaps "Growing Up Fisher" is emblematic of NBC executives' stated desire for broader, more mainstream comedies than recent Thursday night mainstays "30 Rock" and "Parks and Recreation." If so, "Fisher" and "About a Boy" are stronger entries than fall duds "Sean Saves the World" and "Welcome to the Family."

"Fisher" and "About a Boy" are gentle shows about modern families (of a sort). Neither one provokes big laughs, but both are funny enough.

In "Fisher," Mr. Simmons plays Mel as a bold lawyer who does not let his sightlessness get in his way, whether he's meeting with clients or sawing down a tree. Ms. Elfman is back in Dharma mode as an uninhibited woman at midlife who wants more and isn't afraid to buddy up to her more responsible teen daughter (Ava Deluca-Verley) in an effort to appear/feel young again.

"Fisher" is told from the point of view of Henry, a stand-in for series creator D.J. Nash, who based the show on his own life growing up with a blind dad. Jason Bateman ("Arrested Development"), who's also an executive producer on the show, narrates "Fisher" as a grown-up Henry.

"Growing Up Fisher" offers earnest, heartwarming stories about "a new kind of family," as ABC Family promos would call the divorced-but-still-friendly Fishers if the show aired on the basic cable network instead of NBC.

CMU grad stars in 'Fisher'

For "Growing Up Fisher" co-star Ava Deluca-Verley, the series represents her most time on camera yet. The 2012 Carnegie Mellon University graduate had a small role in the 2013 film "The Way Way Back" and a part on TNT's "Southland," executive produced by 1979 CMU grad John Wells.

"On 'Southland' I played someone close to death under a bus, so I'm not quite sure you can recognize me in the episode because I was covered in blood and the light is hitting me in so many different ways, but that experience was so much fun," she said during an interview on NBC's day at January's TV critics winter press tour in Pasadena, Calif.

Ms. Deluca-Verley grew up in Boston as a ballet dancer but switched to acting at age 13 and attended a performing arts high school before CMU. While in school in Pittsburgh, she lived in Shadyside and worked at Walnut Grill and in the catering division of Girasole. ("I miss that gnocchi they have," she said.)

With a youthful appearance, Ms. Deluca-Verley is completely believable as a 16-year-old on "Growing Up Fisher," even though she's actually 24.

"Because I'm introducing myself as an actor, I think the younger the better and then I can play all these other ages later," she said. "I feel like it gives me a longer career, but it's been crazy going back to 16 years old now. ... What's beautiful about my character and how I do relate to her is she's like a 25-year-old trapped in a 16-year-old's body."

Series creator D. J. Nash said he was impressed by Ms. Deluca-Verley in her audition because she reminded him of his own sister on whom the character is based.

"I didn't want the rebellious and angry teenager," he said. "I wanted her to be the unwilling mom of the family, and that's what Ava does so very well."

But she had to find two ways to play the character. The original "Fisher" pilot featured the darker Parker Posey as the mom. The role was recast with the sunnier Jenna Elfman.

"How one deals with Parker as the mom is very different from how I deal with Jenna," Ms. Deluca-Verley said. She described rehearsing the reshot scenes with Ms. Elfman and how harsher line readings felt wrong. "I said to D.J., I don't think this is right. I feel so mean. With Parker I would attack her more because I think she could deal with it whereas Jenna is so lovable on the show, even in all her whimsical craziness she does, I could never attack her. I would become the one people would hate."

'The Americans' returns

The best show not enough people watched in its first season is back for round two next week.

FX's "The Americans" (10 p.m. Wednesday) does the near-impossible of making viewers cheer for Russian spies in America and at the same time for the American FBI agents who are trying to unmask those Russians living in suburbia. It's an incredibly deft balancing act that's accomplished through strong character development all around.

The series follows the arranged marriage of Russian spies Philip (Matthew Rhys, "Brothers and Sisters") and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell, "Felicity"), who have two children and have been deep undercover for years.

In season one their fake marriage was tested, but by the end of the season, they had committed to one another. As season two begins, Philip and Elizabeth reconnect with old friends, another Russian spy couple, but find themselves in fear for their family after a routine mission takes a bad turn.

Meanwhile, FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) continues to fall for his KGB mole, Nina (Annet Mahendru), who, unbeknownst to Stan, is now spying on him and reporting back to her Russian bosses.

Next week's season premiere offers a gripping thriller of an hour of TV. Subsequent episodes play with the notion of marriage as Elizabeth, in disguise, gets better acquainted with Martha (Alison Wright), the FBI secretary Philip has entered a fake marriage with. And political machinations inside the Russian embassy have potentially far-reaching consequences for one of the show's key characters.

"We saw the first season very much as the marriage between this couple and the ups and downs and the shifts and the terrible struggle they were having to see if they would stay together or not, and at the end of the season, Elizabeth says to Philip, 'Come home,' and we know that he is going to come home," said series creator Joe Weisberg in January at an FX press conference during the TV critics winter press tour in Pasadena, Calif. "After that, there's a sense they're going to be more solid and more together and the problems are going to come from the kids, and Paige in particular. So we're going to see how this family tries to struggle and hold it together during this season."

TV writer Rob Owen: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook for breaking TV news.

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