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Television review: 'Family Tools' still retooling

TelevisionEntertainmentMoviesABCKyle BornheimerLeah ReminiDanielle Nicolet

Television is an unusually fluid art. Because a TV series exists in time, over time, change and revision are in its blood. It's as if painters went back to work on their paintings after they were hung in museums.

Series of films or books based on repeating characters also evolve — Sean Connery, meet Daniel Craig — but their progress is relatively glacial. TV series are fruit flies by comparison, mutating not just from season to season but week to week.

The inauspiciously titled "Family Tools," which premieres Wednesday on ABC, is based on a middling British series called "White Van Man." On the basis of its pilot episode, taken alone, I might have warned you to be out of the house Wednesday night in case you might see it even by accident.

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It stars J.K. Simmons as Tony, a.k.a. Mr. Jiffy Fix, who after a series of heart attacks reluctantly turns his home-repair business over to son Jack (Kyle Bornheimer), a serial failure. Leah Remini, as Tony's sister, is the interfering agent of this transfer; Johnny Pemberton is her oddball teenage son.

Edi Gathegi is Darren, the antagonistic assistant Jack acquires, an on-the-make slacker who has to say things like, "You know I was going to jump your bones right in the kitchen last night, but I felt bad because I was there to take out your granddaughter." Danielle Nicolet plays Darren's sister, who works the counter at the hardware store they go to for supplies and messes with Jack's head.

"What'd you screw up this time?" asks a neighbor played by Adam Arkin (clearly doing someone a favor) as Jack passes by in the pilot, returning home to live in his father's basement. "Park ranger? Navy SEAL? Dalai Lama?" He has, in fact, been expelled from seminary, where "they just failed to appreciate my ideas on making the Bible a little less long and preachy."

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Things go wrong, and then more things go wrong. Though we are herded toward a sentimental finish, it is predictable and unearned and doesn't dispel the nastiness that precedes it.

But two episodes were made available for review, and a great distance is crossed between them. I'm not making any huge claims for "Family Tools," and given that ABC reduced the series order from 13 to 10 episodes, and that it is May already, its passage among us may be brief in any case. Nevertheless, as much as I disliked the first episode, I would cautiously recommend the second.

What changes? Caricatures relax into characters, each with a measure of human dignity. What was mechanical starts to feel organic. The pilot half aims for the exaggerated, other-worldly tone of "Arrested Development" and misses; it seems at once strenuous and arbitrary, loud and meaningless, like a bad night of improv.

The second episode, by contrast, has a healthy dose of the ordinary mixed in and is actually about something: the invisibility of the working class. It exaggerates absurdly to make its point, but it has one, and a good one.

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'Family Tools'

Where: ABC

When: 8:30 p.m. Wednesday

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

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TelevisionEntertainmentMoviesABCKyle BornheimerLeah ReminiDanielle Nicolet
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