"Sons of Tucson," which premieres Sunday on Fox, is a lesson in just how many old tropes, previously seen characters and stock situations one may hammer together into a television series and still arrive at something fresh and real.
Created by TV newcomers Greg Bratman and Tommy Dewey, this story of three brothers and the slacker-hero who poses as their dad has been shepherded into life by a host of veterans of "Malcolm in the Middle," including "Tucson" executive producer Justin Berfield (who played oldest son Reese on "Malcolm"), show-runner Matthew Carlson and director and executive producer Todd Holland, whose other credits include "The Larry Sanders Show" and "Wonderfalls," and whose talent for unsentimental whimsy is on full display here.
Tyler Labine (in a part not far from the one he played on "Reaper") stars as Ron Snuffkin, a sporting goods store clerk of no great ambition, living in his car and in debt to a loan shark. His sitcom salvation comes in the form of the Gunderson brothers, living on their own after the incarceration of their banker father -- "He stole from the rich and gave to some other rich who he later stole from again, but not as much," says oldest child Brandon, played by Matthew Levy -- and in need of a dad to enroll them in school. They hire Ron, who parlays a day's work into a permanent arrangement -- "What if you need a doctor's note for school, or a ride to K-Mart? Plus, I can buy beer" -- and moves into their tool shed.
The kids, all excellently played, are arrayed much as they were in "Malcolm": a street-smart older child; a comparatively adult middle kid (Frank Dolce, as the grim, anxious Gary. "Who unplugged my crock pot? I had a lentil stew going"); and a slightly strange youngest (Benjamin Stockham as Robby). They treat Ron, as their employee, initially with contempt; he disrespects them as equals, which is to say, he takes them seriously.
Even at his most fanciful, Labine has the gift of seeming familiar. Both on "Reaper" and in "Tucson," I felt I knew his character -- not that I recognized the type but that I had, in fact, known him somewhere. He has been compared to Jack Black for his size, shape, beard and fast-talking, let's-rock bearing, but Labine is softer, more relaxed. There is something in his patter -- "Let me tell you something I learned from skimming the first five pages of 'The Art of War' " -- that recalls the Bill Murray of old, with a touch of John Belushi. Like them, he has the gift of making (moderately) bad behavior -- he drinks, he lies -- look good.
Ultimately, this is another in a long line of movies and shows in which immature adults are forced to grow up by the presence of suddenly acquired needful children (whom he will teach to be children). The show does point toward a sentimental conclusion -- were it a movie, that end would be reached in a couple of hours, with the pretty teacher played by Natalie Martinez. But the governing impulses here are more sardonic than sentimental, and this being television, the usual end may be forestalled indefinitely, and happily so.