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'Life in Pieces' on CBS takes its family comedy seriously

 'Life in Pieces' on CBS takes its family comedy seriously
Niall Cunningham, left, and Betsy Brandt, center, in “Life in Pieces.” (Eddy Chen / CBS)

"Life in Pieces," which premieres Monday on CBS, represents a change in direction for a network long dedicated to "filmed before a live audience" multi-camera comedy — from "I Love Lucy" to "The Dick Van Dyke show" to "All in the Family" to "Mike and Molly," it's been their thing. Single-camera comedy like this, which has only the laughs you supply, looks sophisticated and serious in a way that "The Big Bang Theory" never could.

As if to underscore this visual higher tone, the series, created by "Better Off Ted" vet Justin Adler, has been conceived as a weekly collection of short stories about an extended family. (A title card explains: "One big family. Four short stories. Every week.") In one sense this just untangles the strands that make up most every TV show, presenting the A and B and other plot lines discretely instead of cutting between them: "Story One: First Date," "Story Two: The Delivery," and so on.

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It's set just around the point where a more whimsical "Parenthood" would meet a less caustic "Modern Family," and focuses on three siblings, their parents, and their children. The roster is impressive: James Brolin, Dianne Wiest, Betsy Brandt, Dan Bakkedahl, Colin Hanks, Thomas Sadoski, Angelique Cabral, Zoe Lister-Jones — it might just as easily be the cast of the next Untitled Woody Allen Project.

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Web series have shown us that you do not need long to tell a comical story, and Adler sets up his episodes-within-the-episode with efficiency, with just enough business between premise and punchline to suggest the bigger world that contains them. Three out of four have to do with sex in part, or with sexual parts; the fourth is about the fleetingness and preciousness of life — a point Brolin's character, who has thrown himself a funeral for his 70th birthday, makes explicitly, for those who didn't notice on their own.

It's solidly constructed and gives each actor a modicum of delightful moments — Wiest most of all. At the same time, there is something airless and artificial about the pilot. It's a big world, and some father somewhere has possibly said to his son "Your sister tells me you're a virgin," or some precocious little girl, informed of the nonexistence of Santa Claus, has told her parents, "Up is down and down is up for me right now, I need some time alone. ... And you have some serious trust to rebuild here."

But these are things are you are more likely to hear in a television show. Even at its most outrageous, "Life in Pieces" feels padded with foam.

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'Life in Pieces'

Where: CBS

When: 8:30 p.m. Monday

Rating: TV-14-D (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with an advisory for suggestive dialogue)

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