Tuesday, Jan 17, 2006
Charlie McCollum  XML

Posted on Sat, Sep. 17, 2005

Funny again

WITH CASTS THAT CLICK, SOPHISTICATED WRITING, NETWORK SITCOMS GET A NEW LEASE ON LAUGHS

By Charlie McCollum
Mercury News

Before you send condolences or a lovely floral arrangement, any obituaries you may have seen for the classic half-hour TV sitcom may have been just a bit premature.

For the past two years, it has looked like the genre was on life support as such big hits as ``Friends'' left the scene and nothing came along to replace them. Joe Keenan, the co-creator of ``Frasier,'' complained that ``there's no freshness. There's no originality. It's all characters you've seen before, situations you've seen before, jokes you've heard before.''

But it turns out that while the television comedy may not be totally healthy, we can hold off on the last rites.

Of the top new network series this fall, four are comedies: Fox's ``Kitchen Confidential,'' CBS's ``How I Met Your Mother,'' NBC's ``My Name Is Earl'' and UPN's ``Everybody Hates Chris.'' (Arts and Entertainment will have a full story on ``Chris'' on Thursday.) On Sept. 25, HBO will unveil ``Extras,'' a terrific new comedy from Ricky Gervais of ``The Office.''

Meanwhile, Fox's ``Arrested Development'' and NBC's ``The Office,'' two newer and very good comedies that have struggled to find viewers, were renewed unexpectedly. And Larry David's ``Curb Your Enthusiasm'' returns to HBO after a long hiatus.

But it's the new sitcoms that could resuscitate the genre. Certainly, they have a freshness that's encouraging.

``Kitchen Confidential'' (8:30 p.m. Monday, Chs. 2, 35) is based on the acerbic book by renowned New York chef Anthony Bourdain, who wrote, ``I love the sheer weirdness of the kitchen life: the dreamers, the crackpots, the refugees and sociopaths.''

Creators Darren Star (``Sex and the City'') and Dave Hemingson (``Just Shoot Me'') have changed Bourdain's first name to Jack but have kept intact his jaundiced view of what goes on behind those kitchen doors.

Jack Bourdain (Bradley Cooper from ``Alias'') is a culinary whiz kid who crashes and burns under the weight of booze, drugs and sex. When he gets out of rehab, the only work he can find is cooking at a tacky Italian restaurant (think the Olive Garden with really bad opera).

Then he gets a second chance -- at Nolita, a new upscale restaurant in desperate need of some kitchen glitz with opening night just days away. He assembles some of his old foodie posse and hastily throws together a menu, a kitchen crew and a wait staff.

The writing is sharp and sophisticated, avoiding the predictable sitcom cliches. What really sparks the show, though, is a fine ensemble that, like Cooper, has been drawn largely from drama: Bonnie Somerville (``NYPD Blue''), Nicholas Brendon (``Buffy the Vampire Slayer'') and grown-up, almost unrecognizable John Francis Daley (``Freaks and Geeks.'')

It's rare to see a cast click with comedy timing in a debut episode, but ``Confidential'' manages the trick.

Unfortunately, ``Confidential'' finds itself opposite ``How I Met Your Mother'' (8:30 p.m. Monday, Chs. 5, 46), much closer to a sure hit since it's nestled in the midst of CBS' well-entrenched Monday night comedy lineup.

That's too bad for viewers, too, because if you're still looking for the new ``Friends'' after ``Joey'' fell flat, this delightful romantic comedy about five friends looking for love in New York City could be it. Writers Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, who earned their comedy stripes on ``The Late Show With David Letterman,'' have given a fresh spin to bits and pieces of the sitcom formula and have turned out something with real wit and considerable charm.

The framing device is an unseen Ted (voiced by Bob Saget) telling his two teenage children how he met their mother 25 years before. The show then flashes back to his younger days when (played by relative newcomer Josh Randor) he was a not-so-eligible bachelor in Manhattan, hanging out with newly engaged friends Marshall (Jason Segel of ``Freaks and Geeks'') and Lily (Alyson Hannigan of ``Buffy'') and snarky buddy Barney (a terrific Neil Patrick Harris, Doogie Howser himself.)

In the very first episode, Ted finds his wife-to-be Robin (Cobie Smulders from ``The L Word'') except . . . well, that would spoil the twist at the end.

As is the case with ``Confidential,'' this is a cast that jells immediately, hitting on all cylinders from the very first scene. If Bays and Thomas can keep up the writing -- and there's no reason to believe they can't -- this show could be a breakout creatively and with viewers.

``My Name Is Earl'' (9 p.m. Tuesday, Chs. 8, 11) has a much tougher road ahead of it, if for no other reason than it comes closer to shattering the network comedy mold.

Earl (independent film actor Jason Lee) is the kind of guy most people would cross the street to avoid: He's a scruffy, low-rent thief who lives in ratty motel. One day, he hits a lottery scratcher jackpot, gets run over by a car and finds a spiritual awakening in the words of Carson Daly. He then decides to right the wrongs he's done in his life -- all 258 of them.

Borrowing a bit from ``Raising Arizona,'' creator Greg Garcia (also responsible for ``Yes, Dear,'' but let's forgive him) has fashioned a comedy that manages to be crude and sweet, smart and splendidly stupid, all at the same time. Lee is perfect as Earl and he gets substantial support from Ethan Suplee (``The Butterfly Effect'') as his slow-witted brother Randy.

Now, the question is: If viewers would avoid Earl in real life, do they want ``Earl'' in their living rooms every Tuesday night?

Finally, there's ``Extras'' (10:30 p.m. Sept. 25), a co-production of HBO and Britain's BBC that turns the brilliant comedian Gervais and his ``Office'' co-creator Stephen Merchant loose on the world of filmmaking.

It's hard to come up with a second act when your first was ``The Office.'' The faux documentary about life in a paper company may have been one of the most perfect comedies ever made, with Gervais creating a character for the ages in David Brent, the delusional boss from hell.

``Extras'' doesn't quite rise to the same level, but it is very funny and Gervais plays another memorable character -- Andy Millman, a bitter aspiring actor who can find work only as an extra (or ``background artist,'' as Millman calls himself.)

While the show gets in its digs at ego-driven world of film, it's really as much about that industry as ``The Office'' was about paper. The real key is the characters that Gervais and Merchant have created, people you may not always like but understand totally, even at their worst moments.

As in ``The Office,'' Gervais gets tons of help from the rest of the regular cast, notably Merchant as Millman's agent and the delightful Ashley Jensen as another extra. Plus there are some hysterical cameos from the likes of Kate Winslet, Ben Stiller, Patrick Stewart and Samuel L. Jackson as themselves. In fact, it's worth tuning into the first episode of ``Extras'' just to see Winslet making fun of herself with great glee.


Contact Charlie McCollum at cmccollum@mercurynews.com or (408) 920-5245. His blog on the world of TV appears at www.mercextra.com /cmccollum.