It's a far cry from the must-see TV era of NBC in the 1990s, but CBS and NBC attempt to woo viewers with three new Thursday comedies.
CBS has the best shot for a hit with "The Millers" while NBC's losing streak may continue with "Welcome to the Family" and "Sean Saves the World."
There is nothing sophisticated about CBS's "The Millers" (8:30 tonight, KDKA-TV), but it sure is funny.
Not so much smart-funny but certainly belly-laugh funny, and that's a credit to writer/creator Greg Garcia ("Raising Hope") and performances by stars Will Arnett ("Arrested Development"), Margo Martindale ("The Americans") and Beau Bridges ("Masters of Sex").
Mr. Arnett stars as Nathan Miller, a TV news reporter in Leesburg, Va. (never mind that there are no TV stations in Leesburg, which is part of the Washington, D.C., media market).
Nathan is recently divorced but hasn't shared this news with his overbearing mother, Carol (Ms. Martindale), or his slightly addled father, Tom (Beau Bridges). His sister, Debbie (Jayma Mays, "Glee"), revels in the notion that the golden boy will soon lose his luster when this news is shared.
Directed by TV veteran James Burrows ("Cheers," "Will & Grace"), "The Millers" is least interesting when its focus turns to Debbie and family, roles recast since the initial pilot but with little rewriting to make the characters pop.
"The Millers" is at its best whenever Mr. Arnett shares the screen with his TV mom, TV dad or both. Once news of Nathan's divorce comes out, Tom decides to leave Carol, trailing complaints about her criticism of everything he does, from making a phone call to masturbation.
As Tom moves in with Debbie, Carol bunks with Nathan, cramping his style just as he has started to think about dating again.
"I didn't get divorced from one controlling woman to turn around and become roomies again with the original puppet master," Nathan says.
A raft of fart jokes follow, and while they are lowest common denominator humor, they're also pretty funny.
"When you can hear them, they're funny," Nathan tells his mother of her propensity for passing gas. "Without sound, they're just gross."
"The Millers" won't be confused with highbrow entertainment but taken on its own terms and thanks to a talented trio of cast members, it's a welcome addition to CBS's Thursday night comedy block.
'Welcome to the Family'
Not great, not terrible, "Welcome to the Family" (8:30 tonight, WPXI) is another occasionally amusing but not really funny family comedy.
Responsible valedictorian Junior (Joseph Haro) impregnates his girlfriend Molly (Ella Rae Peck), who vacillates inconsistently between ditzy and determined.
When Junior says he will "do the right thing" by Molly after she announces her pregnancy, Molly asks, "Why is it up to the guy to do the right thing? Who's to say I'm not gonna skip town and stick you with a baby? Our society is so patriotic."
"Do you mean patriarchal?" Junior asks.
"Probably," Molly says.
There's never any conversation about terminating the pregnancy or putting the baby up for adoption. In "Welcome to the Family," it's just a given that Junior will defer his acceptance to Stanford and Molly will take a pass on college. (Ah, broadcast network sitcoms, not exactly the land of reality.)
While Junior and Molly's situation is at the center of "Welcome to the Family," it's their parents and their reactions to one another that is the unfortunate focus of this comedy.
Molly's dad, orthodontist Dan Yoder (Mike O'Malley, "Glee"), first encounters Junior's dad, Miguel (Ricardo A. Chavira, "Desperate Housewives"), at Miguel's gym and they immediately clash. Faster than you can say "Three's Company," the spectacular coincidence is revealed that the quarreling pair will soon be family.
Molly's mom, Caroline (Mary McCormack, "Line of Sight"), and Junior's mom, Lisette (Justina Machado, "Six Feet Under"), are more levelheaded than hotheaded, at least in the pilot episode.
"Welcome to the Family" doesn't dwell too much on the ethnic differences -- Junior's family is Hispanic, Molly's is white -- although it is acknowledged through a few jokes. That's a step forward. But it's a small step, considering that "Welcome" is more successful for the situation it establishes than it is for any comedic moments.
'Sean Saves the World'
It's a spectator sport to watch TV stars famous for a single role attempt to reinvent themselves; sadly for them and for viewers, that doesn't always go so well. Such is the case with former "Will & Grace" star Sean Hayes, who headlines NBC's pedestrian, blah "Sean Saves the World" (9 tonight, WPXI).
A multicam sitcom squeezed into a night of single-camera shows, "Sean Saves the World" stands out as a throwback, the kind of "hammock" show NBC of old would have strung between "Friends" and "Seinfeld" for a few weeks. Now this show is a main event, airing at 9 p.m. as "The Michael J. Fox Show" takes up residence at 9:30.
Mr. Hayes stars as Sean, a Chicago businessman whose 14-year-old daughter, Ellie (Samantha Isler), has just moved in full time after her mother took a job in New York.
Sean's best friend is co-worker Liz (Carnegie Mellon University grad Megan Hilty, "Smash"), who clashes with Sean's smothering mother, Lorna (Linda Lavin, "Alice") in a bizarre affection triangle that features Sean as the other point.
"That's probably grandma," Sean says when a phone rings. "She gets upset when people yell at me and she can't pile on."
Tonight's pilot features loads of physical comedy -- the show is so manic, particularly Mr. Hayes' performance, that it's clearly trying too hard -- and painfully obvious setup dialogue.
"If you're gay, how did you and mom have sex?" Ellie asks on behalf of the viewers the show presumes will be confused about the concept of a closeted gay man in a heterosexual marriage.
A future episode that explains how Liz and Sean met has a much funnier backstory explanation scene and another episode shines a light on Sean's relationship with his mother to creepy, incest joke excess.
While it's a treat to see Ms. Lavin back in prime time, it's unfortunate that she's returning in what amounts to an obvious, promiscuous grandma role. In one episode, Lorna encourages her granddaughter to look at her own vagina in a mirror, presumably because it's just so hilarious to hear a grandma say the word "vagina."
Saving the world seems like too big a goal for poor Sean Hayes. He needs to start with saving this dreadful show, and that may be an impossible task.
A version of this story first appeared in Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. TV writer Rob Owen: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2582. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.