A taste of two more new comedies

Times Staff Writer

Another night, another couple of new TV comedies. Neither Fox’s “Luis” nor WB’s “Like Family” are close to perfect, or in any sense groundbreaking, but both offer distinct pleasures.

The least likely thing about “Luis” is Luis Guzman himself, a character actor beloved of film directors Paul Thomas Anderson and Steven Soderbergh, but not the first person you would imagine building a sitcom around.

A short, barrel-shaped man with an enormous head, bad skin and oddly lupine features -- from his wolf man hairdo to his all-the-better-to-eat-you-with smile -- he is, by the standards of TV leads, freaky. He is also visibly less comfortable than his co-stars in the essentially “live” theatrical space of situation comedy. Plus, he doesn’t seem to blink.


Yet “Luis” is so far the liveliest of the year’s new sitcoms. It is low, broad and abrasive, but it moves fast and has some of the urban funkiness of the old “John Larroquette Show” -- the one set in a bus station -- and was indeed created by a veteran of that series, Will Gluck.

Set in a Spanish Harlem doughnut shop slightly beyond the northern reaches of Jerry Seinfeld’s Manhattan, and way beyond Candace Bushnell’s -- where taxis go only “when they get lost” -- it is a pungent breath of frying-fat-scented air in a gentrifying sitcom-America increasingly centered in the expensively furnished living rooms and designer kitchens of the professional class. (“Whoopi” and, ahem, “The Mullets” do provide some similar relief.)

Structurally, it resembles “All in the Family,” with Guzman an opinionated, prickly, middle-aged, working-class male a step or two behind the times -- he has just now discovered call waiting -- who is sheltering a spunky daughter (Jaclyn DeSantis) and her tall, long-haired and slightly useless significant other (Wes Ramsey). The wife here is not an Edith but an ex; Diana-Maria Riva easily conveys the believable terms of their affectionately quarrelsome estrangement.

As a self-made man -- Luis also owns the building that houses his doughnut shop, an edifice “held together by rust, graffiti and whipped lard” -- his beef with Ramsey is not political, but economic: The boyfriend is an unemployed artist, a calling that if nothing else gives him the opportunity to deliver the line, “It’s such a hostile environment around here, it’s a wonder I can paint at all -- I mean, I’m not a German Expressionist, for crying out loud.” Their antagonism is central to the action: This is a comedy of insult and complaint.

Also around to irritate Guzman are his assistant, Charlie Day, who is sweet and stupid in an old-fashioned way, and Malcolm Barrett, as a street entrepreneur, popping in the door to sell items of suspicious provenance -- a pair of pants, a waffle iron, a “White Oleander” DVD. He is never less than funny.

If “All in the Family” is the template for Luis, “Like Family,” set just across the Hudson River in suburban New Jersey, occupies the house -- one of those nice houses mentioned above -- that “The Brady Bunch” built. It sees a white family in crisis (relatively speaking, of course -- this is a situation comedy) moving in with a more prosperous, more conservative black one. (The mothers, played by Holly Robinson Peete, of “For Your Love,” and Diane Farr, of “Roswell,” are best friends.)


In Brady terms, J Mack Slaughter and Megalyn Echikunwoke (“24”) are the Greg and Marcia, with the requisite unacknowledged sexual tension. The racial element is barely touched upon -- young B.J. Mitchell’s line to Slaughter, “You’re like the big white brother I never had,” is about as deep as it goes. Mitchell has to stand for all the other Brady kids, while J. Anthony Brown, as “Pops,” a well-dressed dirty old man, is, functionally speaking, Alice.

The show hasn’t quite found its feet. The plots are, so far, pat. There are too many of those icky “aaaaawww” moments lesser series like to strive for. Farr works a tad too hard, while Slaughter, as her semi-troubled son, is stiff -- a dead spot.

We are given to understand that it was his flirtation with bad companions that helped prompt their move, but it’s difficult to picture him doing anything bad, or even fun. It’s hard to tell if this is more the actor’s fault, or the writers’; they are at pains to make him acceptably nice, when they might more profitably make him a little naughty.

And there is the alarming sight of a man sitting on a toilet.

That is Kevin Michael Richardson. Though Peete is nominally the star, Richardson, as her husband, is the one you watch. Heretofore employed mostly as a voice-over artist (“Lilo & Stitch,” “The Powerpuff Girls”), he is a big, big man who floats like Jackie Gleason. (His dancing, featured next week, is a thing of wonder.)

Richardson is a true clown, and though he moves through the show in an attitude of almost permanent exaggeration, he’s never less than real. Every moment he’s on-screen, except perhaps for that moment on the toilet, is a moment worth the viewer’s time.


New comedies


Where: Fox

When: Fridays, 8:30 p.m.; premieres tonight

Luis Guzman...Luis

Jaclyn DeSantis...Marly

Diana-Maria Riva...Isabella

Charlie Day...Richie

Malcolm Barrett...TK

Wes Ramsey...Greg

Creator, executive producer Will Gluck. Director, Jeff Melman.


‘Like Family’

Where: WB

When: Fridays, 8:30 p.m.; premieres tonight

Rating: The network has rated the show TV-PG (may not be suitable for young children).

Holly Robinson Peete...Tanya

Diane Farr...Maddie

J Mack Slaughter...Keith

Kevin Michael Richardson...Ed

Megalyn Echikunwoke...Danika

B.J. Mitchell...Bobby

J. Anthony Brown...Pops

Executive producers, Rick Weiner, Kenny Schwartz, Warren Littlefield. Director, Barnet Kellman. Writer, Dan Fogelman.