The humor in TBS's Pittsburgh-set barroom sitcom "Sullivan & Son" alternates between broad-as-a-barn stereotypes and politically incorrect specific. That's an odd mix. But with a diverse cast of characters that includes several scene-stealing sitcom veterans, "Sullivan" is certainly more watchable than TBS's earlier summer effort, the desultory "Men at Work."
Debuting at 10 p.m. Thursday, "Sullivan & Son" begins as Steve Sullivan (former Pittsburgher Steve Byrne) returns home to Pittsburgh from New York, where he works as a corporate attorney. His girlfriend of eight months is in tow -- literally and figuratively. Ashley is a snobby caricature who can't open her mouth without insulting Steve's hometown. She complains there's no Starbucks in his old neighborhood and complains again when her coffee costs only $1.
"Coffee's supposed to cost $4. That's how you know it's good," she reasons. Clearly Ashley is smothering Steve with talk of marriage and his career prospects. But that's not enough to signal she's wrong for him so the premiere episode, written by Mr. Byrne and executive producer Rob Long ("Cheers"), goes for the same joke over and over.
"I want to be around people who are sophisticated, who are plugged in, who eat Ethiopian food but aren't Ethiopian," she says. Taken on their own, each bit of Ashley-is-a-snob evidence is funny, but slathered one on top of each other, it's a bit much. We get it, she's not a Yinzer!
Of course, some Pittsburgh viewers might complain none of the show's supposed Pittsburghers are true Yinzers either. None of the characters speak with a Pittsburgh accent (there's no talk of going "dahntahn") but the show's politically incorrect tone and blue collar vibe make up for this deficiency.
The pilot works its way up to the proposition that Steve will move back home and take over Sullivan & Son, the family bar run by his father, Jack (Dan Lauria, "The Wonder Years"), who is ready to retire and sell the bar to fund his retirement with Steve's mom, Ok Cha (Jodi Long, "All-American Girl").
Along the way, viewers meet the bar's regulars, including slutty DMV clerk Carol (Christine Ebersole, "The Cavanaughs") and gruff, a-little-bit-racist Hank (Brian Doyle Murray, "Groundhog Day").
It's Hank who gets the most politically incorrect showcase in the "Sullivan" premiere when he offers a toast to Jack that manages to offend a multitude of racial, ethnic and religious groups in the course of praising the aging barkeeper for managing to bring them all together at Sullivan & Son (imagine a South Side corner bar).
This moment is both the most shocking and the most honest. Hank doesn't mean to be gleefully offensive. He just is. The show seems to be on Hank's side -- stick-in-the-mud Ashley condemns his "hate speech" -- but the writers don't completely let him off the hook. When he suggests the bar's diverse denizens are united to "keep the Mexicans out," the camera zooms in on two Hispanic regulars who are already there.
"I thought you were Indians," ignorant Hank says.
"Sullivan & Son" makes a game effort to get regional details right and mostly succeeds with a WDVE sticker on the jukebox, characters clad in Penguins gear and even an accurate Allegheny County Health Department logo in episode two. But the miscues also stand out, like when a cop refers to "the 79," inspired, no doubt by Southern Californians' tendency to put "the" before any Interstate number ("the 405," "the 10," etc.).
"Sullivan & Son" is no instant TV classic, but its reinterpretation of a place where everyone knows your name is outrageous enough to bear watching.
Rob Owen writes this Sunday TV column for Scripps Howard News Service. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook. First Published July 15, 2012 4:00 AM