Here are Kelsey Grammer and Martin Lawrence, two talented TV veterans, co-starring in a three-camera sitcom. It's called "Partners" and it premieres Monday on FX. It's funny at times, as it would almost have to be. But it's more often vexing, like an out-of-tune guitar.
Grammer, the erstwhile Frasier Crane, plays Allen Braddock, a highly successful but ethically dubious Chicago attorney. Pop culturally, "highly successful but ethically dubious" is just another way of saying "lawyer." That Allen has been fired from his father's firm and is being blackballed all over town — for no stated reason — is just the series' first occasion to say, "What now?"
Meanwhile, somewhere across town, Marcus Johnson, played by Lawrence (the return to TV of Martin from "Martin"), is starting his day. He is a lawyer too but one selfless to a fault.
Certain things will happen to put Allen and Marcus together in a courtroom, then a men's room, then a law office. The unconvincing theory of their partnership, proposed by Allen, is that his aggressiveness will help Marcus make money ("How long do you think you can be a man of the people when those people pay you in promises?"), though by the look of it, Marcus is prosperous enough. Allen gets a place to practice and this TV show.
If they represent a kind of moral Oscar and Felix, they are also Lucy and Ethel. In the pilot, they invade a rectory to confirm Allen's suspicions about Marcus' soon-to-be-ex-wife's infidelity. In a subsequent episode, to snare a crooked wedding planner, they go undercover as a gay couple. (That they bicker constantly sells their couplehood.)
It also allows for this exchange:
Allen (to planner): "There are two things that gay men simply will not tolerate: Having their name misspelled on a latte, and deception."
Marcus: "I thought he was going to say 'breasts.'"
The jokes seem out of time, like soldiers rescued from a deserted island, asking what year it is and if the war is over. Allen's comment to a gay couple, "I think you're making a 'Brokeback Mountain' out of a molehill," has the flavor of something that's been sitting in a file since 2005, waiting for this day.
A black actor and a white actor splitting top billing in a sitcom is enough of a rarity to be noted approvingly. And there are moments that suggest that the stars will find their footing. But for the nonce they're playing attitudes more than characters, and at times they seem to be in the same show only by virtue of sharing the shot.
The most natural chemistry, unexpectedly, is between McKaley Miller as Allen's entitled stepdaughter and Telma Hopkins as Marcus' no-nonsense mother. Miller has some awful lines to deliver: "A 20?" she says to Allen, to whom she has come for money. "Does it look like I'm standing on a corner about to get into an Impala?" But she also gets some of the better ones: "Just so you know, if I fall asleep while you're talking, it means I like you." I am ready for their spinoff, if it ever comes to that.