New NBC sitcoms: The Good, The…Not As Good, and The Ugly

I recently watched three of NBC’s newest sitcoms: Guys with Kids, Go On, and The New Normal. It’s really kind of uncanny how equidistant they are from each other on the scale of awful to awesome. Let’s start with the awful, so we can end on a positive note.

GUYS WITH KIDS (Wednesdays at 8:30/7:30 central; premieres Sept. 26)

Even the baby knows this is an awful show.

Why it’s bad: Guys with Kids feels like a mediocre sitcom that was made in the 90s and has been collecting dust on a shelf for 20 years because an executive didn’t think audiences would buy the premise. And mediocre for the 90s is kind of terrible in 2012, because now it just feels tired and old with its live studio audience, three-camera filming, establishing shots of buildings that cut to asinine conversations made of over-the-top dialogue around a coffee/bar/dinner table.

When it comes to characters, there’s the apparent lead, Chris (Jesse Bradford), a bland divorcee with a baby and a shrew of an ex-wife, and his friends Gary (Anthony Anderson), a stay-at-home dad with two babies, two school-aged hellions and a kind of domineering wife; and Nick (Zack Creggor), a relatively normal guy with a school-aged daughter and a relatively normal wife. And just like one-camera sitcoms have spoiled me on filming, shows with actual, well-written women must have spoiled me on female characters, because my ability to gloss over horribly written women has shrunk to nil.

There are no redeeming qualities to Sheila (Erinn Hayes), Chris’ ex who seems to exist to contrast how normal he is with how crazy she is. There are few redeeming qualities to Marny (Tempestt Bledsoe), Gary’s wife. It’s only Emily (Jamie-Lynn Sigler), Nick’s wife, who comes out of the show unscathed. But when the premise of your show already has half the cast getting the short end of the stick, to only have one third of that half be at all tolerable is just really weak.

Positives: There is occasionally a decent line buried amid the dreck, and it’s nice to see Vanessa  Huxtable all grown up.

GO ON (Tuesdays at 9/8 central)

Why it’s okay: It’s always good to have Matthew Perry on my TV again, and his role as Ryan — a recently widowed sports radio guy made to attend group therapy — gives him an excuse to flex his comedic and his dramatic chops. Perry clearly carries the show, and he does so admirably amid a sea of characters that are wildly eccentric, but also are mostly all likable. It’s fun enough and has enough heart for two shows. But I’m not sure it’ll make a full season. And if it does, I’m not sure it’ll make two.

Why it may have problems: The biggest problem that I see from a longevity standpoint is that the point of therapy is to eventually get better. And even though we see them deal with their problems here in amusing ways, I’m not sure it will still  be funny if two years later they still haven’t come to terms with their dead pets, dead relatives, cheating spouses and sorry lots in life. But it has a few other issues, too. Two episodes in, and it’s readily apparent that not all characters are created equally.  For instance, there’s Owen, the young adult with a comatose brother, who is treated with some sensitivity and like a normal  person dealing with an issue. Then there’s another character who deals with her problems (or not) by becoming a crazy cat lady. She’s pretty much just written as the crazy cat lady. Ditto the guy who was in Iraq during the state-side conception of his wife’s baby versus the creepy guy who is very inappropriate and the frail but wise old man versus the high-strung brown-noser. But that’s only two episodes. Hopefully,  there will be plenty more to flesh out the other characters and work out the kinks.

THE NEW NORMAL (Tuesdays at 9:30/8:30 central)

Why it’s awesome: It’s adorable. This show is about David (Justin Bartha) and Bryan (Andrew Rannells), a gay couple who have decided to have a baby via surrogate,  and Goldie (Georgia King), the woman who helps them while trying to follow her dream and set a good example for her own daughter, Shania (BeBe Wood). It feels fairly fresh — and more importantly all the main characters are likable without being clones of each other. It’s not a belly-laugher of a show, but it has laughs and leaves a general feeling of contentment in its wake.

Nothing’s perfect: The only potential trap I see in The New Normal  is that it tries awfully hard when it comes to Goldie’s grandmother — Nana, played by Ellen Barkin.  She’s very bigoted and comes across an obvious attempt to  showcase the absurdity of bigotry.  And while I can agree with that sentiment, it feels a little cheaply done here. Having said that, I’m cautiously optimistic that Nana will not remain such a one-dimensional example of intolerance.  She might never get less bigoted, but the pilot also lays a little groundwork for making her somewhat sympathetic. And I’m okay with that. Because regardless of where someone stands on social issues, I like to imagine that we live in a world where even those who seem like the worst of us are not unequivocally, irredeemably terrible. So maybe there’s hope for Nana.

Also, watching the pilot a second time, I realized that there was a lot of handheld camera work that can get a little excessive. I didn’t notice it so much the first time around. When I rewatched the second episode, the filming seemed toned down a bit, so maybe it’s a moot point. And even if it’s not, it’s a small inconvenience for a show that’s so nice.

So, there you have it. I’m definitely keeping up with The New Normal and Go On. I thought about giving Guys with Kids a chance to be better…but then I realized I just intensely didn’t want to.

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