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There was reason enough to expect something special from “Sit Down, Shut Up,” a new Fox animated sitcom created by Mitchell Hurwitz of "Arrested Development" and featuring a cast -- derived mainly from "Arrested Development" and "Saturday Night Live," with Tom "SpongeBob" Kenny bringing the cartoon cred -- that deserves to be called "all-star." But the show that premieres Sunday night, between "The Simpsons" and "Family Guy" in the space formerly occupied by "King of the Hill," is weak -- not hopeless, but given the pedigree, heavily disappointing.
Based on an old live-action Australian series about a self-involved, semi-competent high school staff -- the word "losers" comes to mind -- it makes no memorable use of the cartoon medium and relies too much on sex jokes and dirty puns, from the name of the school (Knob Haven) and the characters (reluctant P.E. teacher Larry Littlejunk, played by Jason Bateman) on down. ("I want everything exposed and out in the open," to give you a newspaper-friendly example.) It's a kind of humor that registers at once as juvenile and geriatric.
On the scale of Fox animated sitcoms it's closer spiritually, if that's a word you can apply to an animated sitcom, to "Family Guy" than to "The Simpsons," but when it gets its mind out of the gutter, it can have a kind of doofy charm. ("Has anyone ever told you that you're completely oblivious?" "Not that I remember.") There is some breaking the fourth wall, as the characters address creator "Mitch," wonder what the censors will allow and how the audience will react: "I am not going to test well," says bisexual drama teacher Andrew LeGustambos (Nick Kroll). But there is something almost forced and oversold about it. Unlike "The Simpsons," they have not mastered the trick of being ironic about their contrivances -- and being ironic about the irony.
Along with Bateman and Kroll, the undeniably impressive cast includes Will Arnett (preening English teacher Ennis Hofftard), Henry Winkler (pathetic German teacher Willard Deutschebog), Cheri Oteri (mannish school librarian Helen Klench), Will Forte (mood-elevated assistant principal Stewart Proszakian) and Kenny, as a custodian of uncertain Middle Eastern extraction; as foreign school service workers go, he's no Groundskeeper Willie.
Keenan Thompson is nicely acid as acting principal Sue Sezno, who, you know, says no. (Delivering an ultimatum on the necessity of winning a football game: "It's either steroids or get rid of a teacher. And I refuse . . . to get my hopes up about that.") As haphazardly spiritual science teacher Miracle Grohe -- she asks the stars to analyze a drug -- highly musical Kristin Chenoweth makes the best impression, in part because her character is drawn and animated fluidly, while others are stilted and unlovely, and in part because she's exempted from the sex jokes. (She is only their object.) She totes a baby named Merch, I assume because he is a souvenir of a rock show. "Babies are gifts from God; drummers are creeps" is what the show describes as her "catchphrase," although being said only once, it isn't actually a catchphrase.
As the fairly normal Larry, Bateman has the toughest job: Cartoons can express many things, but they falter at the ordinary. He comes through best when commenting on the crassness of the other characters, just as on "Arrested Development." I went back to watch that show to make sure that I wasn't mistaken. It was a cartoon in its way, and the humor could go nearly as low as the jokes here. But they were delivered by human actors, who softened and complicated even the lowest moments with all the things their faces and bodies could do. There are no such mitigating factors here.