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Real deal versus gimmicks

Times Staff Writer

“My Boys,” debuting tonight on TBS, is “Seinfeld” if Jerry were a woman, or “Seinfeld” if it’d really been about Elaine, or “Sex and the City” if Carrie had been Jerry. OK, I’ll stop, because the show is actually good, quietly so, in that way sitcoms rarely are quiet anymore (see ABC’s advertisement for loud, “Big Day,” debuting tonight and to be discussed shortly).

TBS, which has been buying up the syndication rights to hit sitcoms left and right as part of its “very funny” brand, is airing “My Boys” between reruns of “Sex and the City” and “Friends.” I guess that’s the point here -- along with the classics, you create one that walks and talks like a throwback.

To that end, “10 Items or Less,” another new single-camera sitcom that debuted last night at 11 on TBS, is going after a more recent vintage of comedy -- the deadpan irony of “Arrested Development” or “The Office.” It stars and was created by John Lehr, who plays Leslie Pool, the son who moves back to Ohio from New York to take over his late father’s mom-and-pop grocery store.

Greens & Grains is now on the verge of being swallowed up by the chain in town; the place has the feel of a small-market Piggly Wiggly. Lehr inserts himself into this premise like a character in a Christopher Guest movie; he’s half-man, half-rube, a nerd in a vest, in charge of other vests.

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The show, in its way, is too slight to be totally fulfilling, tending to collapse into slapstick, but it can get by on moments -- as when Leslie turns a stain on the wall that bears a resemblance to Jesus Christ into a promotional vehicle: “Come see the miracle, stay for the prices.”

The mockumentary-like style of “10 Items or Less” makes it feel in vogue; “My Boys” is an afghan of a sitcom by comparison, and for this it’s even chancier. If you’re half-asleep it’s possible to believe “My Boys” aired on network TV during some previous epoch, and you somehow missed it. Creator Betsy Thomas evidently pitched her series to the networks four years ago, and they missed it.

Probably because the show has simple needs -- it’s about a grown-up tomboy in Chicago named P.J. (Jordana Spiro), a sportswriter covering the Cubs, and her guy friends Mike (Jamie Kaler), Brendan (Reid Scott), Kenny (Michael Bunin) and her brother Andy (Jim Gaffigan).

The voice-over narration, in which P.J. analogizes everything to baseball (“when you first start dating someone, communication is key.... But just like in baseball ... "), is one of the few places the show feels formulaic. I doubt Spiro would have gotten this part at the networks; she’s too aggressively believable. I mean that both as a compliment of her performance and her looks, which she downplays by slouching, openly eating and saying the word “dude.”

P.J.'s sexuality is supposed to be a muddle, because she dresses like a cute sister, forgetting to act like a guy’s version of a girl, which is to say emotionally vulnerable. It’s what’s weirdest about her, as sitcoms go; she’s an adjusted adult. She goes candle-sniffing with her friend Stephanie (Kellee Stewart) but can’t help ending up back at the pub, hauling another pitcher to her guy clique. They talk about dating and food, more food than dating -- their central meeting place is a professional-looking poker table in P.J.'s living room.

It’s her natural habitat, and her curse. P.J.'s apartment is tidy but also adorned with sports memorabilia; she eats pizza standing up and high-fives without blinking. The bird-like women of “Sex and the City” drank more than they ate before going off to the bedroom, where they typically held all the cards, not to mention other implements. But the bedroom on “My Boys” is like the Beyond part of Bed, Bath & Beyond, and P.J. never gets there. The show gives her a potential beau, the boring nice guy Bobby (Kyle Howard), but she freaks him out because she doesn’t want to analyze before doing.

“Come sit down, we’ll take it slower,” she tells him pityingly.

He knows she’s mocking him (though I didn’t quite believe that she would mock him right out the door).

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It takes an episode and a half, roughly, but “My Boys” grows on you. “Big Day” grows on you, too, but more like a foot fungus in a locker room. The husband and wife writing team of Josh Goldsmith and Cathy Yuspa are big believers in the comedy of shouting. Their Fox series about marriage, “ ‘Til Death,” stars Brad Garrett as a domestic crank who rants at his wife until it’s that time of the episode for him to realize something, at which point Garrett recalibrates his baritone to jazz DJ working the swing shift.

“Big Day,” debuting tonight on ABC, is Goldsmith and Yuspa’s version of a wedding day, which is chaos. Chaos, I tell you!

Let’s you and I go to ABC and pitch “Big Day” together: It’s about a young couple’s wedding day, see, extended family and friends mashed together, and things keep going wrong. This is just off the top of my head, but what if the backyard tent collapsed -- or, no, I know, the slutty sister accidentally swallows the best man’s contact lenses, so he’s, you know, blinded. That joke writes its own punch lines for weeks! Anyway, misadventures ensue. But the thing is -- and this is a must -- the whole show takes place on this same day, like “24.”

Shall we have the network give us a green light? Yes, let’s! This is America, the red states, they love this stuff! They think it’s farce!

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The writers of “Cheers” could do this kind of episode, a master like David Lloyd setting the whole thing in a kitchen. But “Big Day” is all thumbs. It keeps ushering unlikable characters onstage until they amount to a gaggle of sitcom grotesques.

Nobody, except perhaps a harried wedding planner, survives. She’s described on the ABC website as “the hilariously nervous Stephnie Weir.” By deductive reasoning, I guess this makes the rest of the cast simply nervous. The mother of the bride (the ever-game Wendie Malick) and her daughter (Marla Sokoloff) bicker about whether to serve Caesar salad or greens with a poached pear vinaigrette; it’s supposed to betray a defining aspect of their relationship. The groom (Josh Cooke) wants the “What’s Happening!” theme played at the wedding; it represents his inability to grow up. The father of the bride (Kurt Fuller) is a nouveau riche Jewish doctor who enters stage left, with bagels; it represents, I don’t know, his love of bagels.

“Big Day” is basically bad community theater with music clearances. The whole show takes place in an ad-nauseam rhythm of outrageousness followed by moments of sitcom Zen, none of which make the characters any more believable. ABC canceled a much better series of this ilk, “Sons & Daughters,” after some half-dozen episodes last season. That one had characters and heart. “Big Day” has a premise.

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paul.brownfield@latimes.com

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‘Big Day’

Where: ABC

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When: 9 tonight

Rating: TV-PG DL (may be unsuitable for young children with advisories for coarse language and suggestive dialogue)

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‘My Boys’

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Where: TBS

When: 10 tonight

Rating: TV-14 DL (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14 with advisories for coarse language and suggestive dialogue)


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