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Television review: ‘Big Lake,’ ‘Melissa & Joey’ tackle family humor in distinct ways

Though last rites have been administered more than once, the situation comedy is the most resilient of television formats. Time-honored and stable, it is also highly adaptable, ranging easily in attitude from the sincere to the ironic, in form from the classical to the postmodern. The sitcom also has the practical merit of being comparatively economical and easy to make (which does not mean, of course, easy to make well), and after having been largely driven from the screen by reality shows and police procedurals, it is creeping back in around the edges. Two new series premiering Tuesday on basic cable networks build on the tradition in different ways, to different ends.

Considering that it’s had its shingle out for 20 years, Comedy Central has fielded remarkably few straight-up sitcoms. But with “Big Lake” the network kicks it old school — I believe that’s the phrase — with a multi-camera, filmed-before-a-live audience and/or laugh-tracked series in which the characters occupy the usual three-walled spaces of situation comedy: a living room, a kitchen, a workplace and a place where people go to eat and/or drink.

Chris Gethard plays the prodigal at hand, a Wall Street savant who has turned out to be more of an idiot, bankrupting his bank and his own parents in one fell swoop. He now plans to sleep on their couch until he pays them back, a prospect that will drive him and his sitcom running mates — Horatio Sanz and Chris Parnell, former castmates on “Saturday Night Live” — to what in the trade are known as “hare-brained schemes.”

Tradition only goes so far here, however — no surprise given that the series has as executive producers Will Ferrell and Adam McKay. (They are also behind HBO’s “Eastbound & Down,” another show about returning home in disgrace.) Like most of Ferrell’s own work, this is a rather abstract comedy about the bonding of childish men, and to the extent that sentiment raises its head, it’s just in order that it may be kicked back down. You don’t really feel for any of these characters, but you’re not supposed to. They are pawns to advance jokes.

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Gethard has a dazed cartoon naiveté that reminds me more of SpongeBob than any human I know. As his comfortably disillusioned former history teacher, Parnell incarnates yet another smooth weirdo, while Sanz, 100 pounds lighter than on “SNL,” is an energetic dope who gets the most back from his lines. (Of a prom date: “She got sick at the last minute so she had to go with someone else.”) Their interplay, once things get moving, is appealing, if not quite compelling, but what sold me on the pilot was the moment when 14-year-old Dylan Blue, as Gethard’s beyond-the-law kid brother, revealed his dark side, and his gun; I was a little frightened.

Traditional to its core and in its casting is ABC Family’s “Melissa & Joey,” starring former child stars Melissa Joan Hart, of “Clarissa Explains It All” and “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch,” and Joey Lawrence of “Blossom.” Indeed, the series is almost provocative in its use of a premise as old as toothpaste, as a couple of kids suddenly come into the care of a relative ill-equipped to care for them. Hart is the aunt who takes them in; her dual character is summed up in a choice between shoes: “These say ‘Smart, independent, bright political future’; these say, ‘Former bad girl — she’s back.’ ” Lawrence is the in-charge Charles of the piece, coming to bring order into chaos and to spar with Hart.

I confess that, as a fan of “Clarissa” and “Sabrina” — although scarily far out of the target demographic — I’m a bit of a dope when it comes to Hart; I squealed inwardly when I first learned of this show. She may not be destined to play Lady Macbeth, or even Rosalind, but she can brighten a TV screen. Her sense of comic melody is sure, as when she turns from concerned guardian to teenage girl at the sound of a doorbell: “This is your education; nothing is more important — Oh! It’s my date!” At the same time, she retains a kind of awkwardness that, while it stops her from becoming perfectly invisible in her parts, also keeps her recognizably real.

Old-chestnut premise notwithstanding, the show wants to be modern, and the humor occasionally pushes further than one might expect from a family comedy: One unfortunate joke has Hart’s niece in trouble for writing a poem “rhyming her principal’s name in a creative way that didn’t go over well with Miss Lunt.” It caught me up short. Still, I’ll watch this again.

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robert.lloyd@latimes.com


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