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The Funny and the Foul
A Month in, Some New Sitcoms Show Promise, Others Contempt
By Jessica Mathews

Quel Report!
With two solid weeks of “The Colbert Report” under his belt, Stephen Colbert proves he deserves his own desk and dispels any doubts about a show based on a fake com-mercial. Taking the 11:30 p.m. slot on Comedy Central after his old show, the “Daily Show” veteran plays his O’Reilly-esque persona with an inspired bravado. He’s not afraid to recreate interviews from existing materials or tell Bush that he must stay the course with the Harriet Miers nomination. And he knows that if you’re not watching, it’s because you don’t have the balls.

The sitcom hasn’t fared well in recent years. The long-running favorites have slowly had their last hurrahs, leaving “Two and a Half Men” as the highest-rated comedy. It would be easy to suggest that people have tired of the old three-camera, studio-audience model, but many of the shows that have dared to break out of this mold in previous years, like “Arrested Development” and “Scrubs,” haven’t connected with audiences the way they have with critics.

A month into the fall sea-son, the half-hour comedy still has hope, even if the networks have lost interest in the genre. They have only introduced 10 new sitcoms this season, a mere third of new shows—even less if running time is consid-ered. The hour-long “Desperate Housewives” is the only hit from last season that they aren’t replicating with at least four other shows. Seven shows follow the classic laugh-track model, while the other three take a more progressive route. Perhaps coincidentally, two of those outliers, “Everybody Hates Chris” and “My Name is Earl,” are by far the best new comedies of the season.

“Everybody Hates Chris” (UPN, Thursdays at 7 p.m.) is this season’s reason not to give up on television. The semi-au-tobiographical series chroni-cles the life of 13-year-old Chris Rock (Tyler James Williams) in 1982 Brooklyn. The series opens with the adult Chris Rock describing the swinging life he thought he would have by the time he was a teenager. Instead, he has ended up being the only black kid at Corleone Jr. High because his “ghetto snob” mother (Tichina Arnold) wants him to better himself. He suffers the ultimate indig-nity of having a 10-year-old brother who is not only taller than him but better with girls. Not since the early episodes of “Malcolm in the Middle” has a kid had it so tough.

Chris Rock’s narration provides the kind of personal retrospective insight that gives the show an emotional resonance, and it also hap-pens to be hilarious. When Chris’s friend tells him that he is going to need a condom, the young Chris agrees, but the adult Chris concedes that he won’t even know what one is for another two years. After five episodes, the show appears to have what it takes to attract audiences, beyond UPN’s standards anyway. With any luck, we’ll still be able to watch when Chris finds out what a condom is.

“My Name is Earl” (NBC, Tuesday at 8 p.m.) also shows promise and is currently the highest rated new comedy of the season. Jason Lee (“Almost Famous”) is Earl, a petty crimi-nal who, after hearing Karma discussed by Carson Daly, decides to try to right the wrongs of his life. The pilot meanders in a lot of exposition explain-ing Earl’s discovery of Karma as well as marriage and divorce with his unfaithful wife, Joy (Jaime Pressly), but the follow-ing episodes have allowed it to pay off. Lee pulls off a difficult role and is able to avoid the pitfalls of playing a less than brilliant character by making Earl relatable. Earl’s abetters include his brother Randy (Ethan Suplee) and motel maid Catalina (Nadine Velazquez), who have a certain apathy to Earl’s plan and life in general, but nevertheless offer their expertise. The longevity of this concept has been called into question, but why worry about the future when the present is this good?

“Kitchen Confidential” (Fox, Mondays at 7:30 p.m.) is the third non-traditional sit-com, and the least impressive. It’s the story of Jack Bourdain, a recovering alcoholic chef with dreamy eyes, who is try-ing to do the best with his second chance as head chef. His restaurant is staffed with a rogue from the wild days, a cranky pastry chef, a kid from Utah, a ditzy hostess and an adversarial waitress. It is a fast paced show, so when there’s a picking-food-up-off-the-floor joke, at least they don’t linger on it for very long. There have been many pleasant moments on the show but nothing that is truly hilarious. And if ru-mors of cancellation are correct, it will soon be the first sitcom casualty of the 2005 season.

‘That’s why this machine is Dynamite!’

“How I Met Your Mother” (CBS, Mondays at 7:30 p.m.) is the best of the new laugh-track shows. It may even be the best laugh-track show on TV today, but ironically it is trying to do so many things that just don’t fit in the universe of a studio audience. The show is told as a flashback by Ted (Bob Saget) to his kids in the year 2030. Because of this premise, the show is able to play with cross cutting, a quicker pace, freez-ing time, flashbacks and even cutaway close ups, none of which are suited to the theatri-cally staged three-camera style the show is stuck with. For the record, when you are doing a joke in which a club is so loud that you have to use subtitles, it is ridiculous to be able to hear laughter.

That said, the cast members are quite likable and have good chemistry as a group of twen-tysomething friends. There is something refreshing about having a neurotic male main character (Josh Radnor as Ted at 27) who is worried about finding Miss Right. Alyson Hannigan (“Buffy”) and Jason Segel (“Freaks and Geeks”) are his newly engaged friends, while Neil Patrick Harris is Barney—that wacky obnoxious sidekick that every sitcom needs. The show has been getting funnier since the pilot and there is po-tential here. I would like to see what it could do if freed from the conceit of a studio audience.

“Out of Practice” (CBS, Mondays at 8:30 p.m.) has been given the cushy time slot between “Two and a Half Men” and “CSI: Miami.” The most notable thing about Practice is the cast: Stockard Channing, Jennifer Tilly and Henry Winkler all star. However, its biggest contribution to pop cul-ture may be the replacement of Winkler’s family lawyer on “Arrested Development” with fellow “Happy Days” alum Scott Baio (sorry, but I must plug “Arrested Development” as much as pos-sible, Fox, Mondays at 7 p.m.). Unfortunately, the talented cast is placed in a show that feels like it was written for Sitcoms 101. The dysfunctional family of doctors feels gim-micky, and the show’s high production values only make it feel empty.

Another show running with what might have seemed like an original concept is “Twins” (WB, Fridays at 8:30 p.m.). So Sara Gilbert is twins with a sexy lingerie model (Molly Stanton). The creators of “Will and Grace” decided to stick with conven-tion and make the model so stupid that she is barely aware that Gilbert makes smart-ass remarks at her expense. It’s not a crime to have a stupid charac-ter, but at least have the decen-cy to not end every episode with the condescending realization that despite their differences, they are sisters and they love each other.

“Hot Properties” (ABC, Fridays at 8:30 p.m.) is the per-fect show for people who have just watched “Hope and Faith.” It’s like “Designing Women,” only with real-estate agents. And it is set in the least con-vincing New York City on TV. It does have some laughs and a nice assortment of characters (not counting the zany neigh-bors). If they move the show to Miami they could avoid un-favorable comparisons to “Sex and the City” and add a third meaning to the title.

“Love Inc.” (UPN, Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.) makes you long for the originality of “Hot Properties.” It’s another New York City-based female office comedy, only this time the ladies are matchmakers who—believe it or not—still have problems with their own love lives. There is actually a character whose sole purpose is to make jokes about wanting to marry an American to get a green card. Yes, it is that bad.

“Freddie” (ABC, Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m.) fi-nally allows Freddie Prinze Jr. to bring to the small screen the bland sitcom-style comedy he’s perfected on the big screen. The premise of four female rel-atives moving into successful chef Freddie’s swank bachelor pad is better than at least half of his movies. So far the show is doing well, so hopefully if it stays on the air he won’t get the chance to make “Head over Heels 2.”

“The War at Home” (Fox, Sundays at 7:30 p.m.) is the worst new show of the season. It wants to be “Married with Children…”—only without the surreal exaggeration. This show fancies itself as edgy and post-modern because it references “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Eight Simple Rules.” Michael Rapaport’s best roles have been as troubled or goofy outsiders, so why he is playing a sitcom dad, I don’t know. Why Fox picked this up for the rest of the season, I can’t imagine.

So what have we learned after more than a month of new comedies? If you are looking for hilarious and creative shows and are already watching “Arrested Development,” you should be watching “Everybody Hates Chris” and “My Name is Earl.” If you still can’t kick the laugh-track habit, get a healthy dose of “How I Met Your Mother.” If you went to see “Summer Catch,” check out “Freddie.” And to piss me off, watch “The War at Home.”



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