Last fall, FOX tried two different approaches with their comedy series. On one hand, they went with "Happy Hour," a cheap looking, poorly written mess of a series that featured a group of actors who were and remain relatively unknown. On the other, they went with "'Til Death," a poorly written dud of a series that featured a group of brand name actors. "Happy Hour" showed no signs of life and was immediately cancelled. "'Til Death" showed the most moderate signs of creative life and was gifted with the plum time slot after "American Idol," becoming one of TV's most suspect hits. The lesson apparently learned by FOX? Bank on big names and hope the show grows into their talent.
"Back to You" stars Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton, who are about as big as network sitcom stars get in this age in which every critic is contractually obligated to write at least one "Is the Sitcom Dead?" story every year. The show was created by Steve Levitan and Christopher Lloyd and James Burrows is on board as director-producer and even if the kids at home don't know those names, they're pretty big. The result? It's "Anchorwoman," with a script, albeit only a sporadically funny one.
Or imagine "Murphy Brown" without the politics and character specificity and you get "Back to You," a broad and conventional comedy that causes its capable stars to slum, rather than ever rising to their level.
Grammer plays Chuck Darling, an anchor who returns to his Pittsburgh roots after a single disgraceful incident ended his large market career. He's reunited with Heaton's Kelly Carr, the co-anchor he left behind for greener pastures. They have a past that FOX would prefer reviewers not discuss with any specificity, even though it involves a twist that will shock only the most oblivious of viewers. The newsroom is filled with an assortment of colorful characters including the somewhat addled sportscaster (Fred Willard), the busty weathergirl (Ayda Field), the world-weary veteran reporter (Ty Burrell) and the in-over-his-head news director (Josh Gad).
Grammer and Heaton are pros and they can nail a punchline that would have sounded trite and stale in any lesser hands. And some of these punchlines are plenty trite and stale, double entendres so obvious they might as well be followed by an obnoxious character poking his head into the frame and yelling "That's what she said!" Lloyd and Levitan, who have both had some success with somewhat more sophisticated characters, are bizarrely content to wallow in a sea of jokes that are already being repeated by the second episode. Given how brief Chuck and Kelly's long-past affair may have been, it takes only 44 minutes for viewers to be treated to at least 10 jokes about the brevity of said sexual encounter and the, um, brevity of Chuck's equipment. Of course, the studio audience/canned laughter loves every small penis joke, plus every gag about Field's breasts. The generous audience/track even gives at least three loud guffaws to Gad's sweaty armpits.
Given how reliable and expected the work by Grammer, Heaton and Willard (far more on-point in the second episode than the first) is, the show's surprise standout is Burrell. A veteran of Lloyd's last network series -- the similarly star-studded, similarly lackluster, somewhat smarter "Out of Practice" -- Burrell's withering deadpan timing is impeccable and he somehow manages to keep his dignity even when the second episode turns him into a twitching heap.
Only a fool would write off a team this good after only a pair of episodes, but "Back to You" needs to find its voice and its reason for being. A toothless satire of local news doesn't require this much talent, but viewers are going to need patience to return to this broadcast after the break.