Our sitcom subconscious seems to yearn lately for a return to the era of the whoop-ass dad, a temperamental man of the house whose blunt parenting style includes yelling, some antisocial verbal jabs and a few stern thwacks to the head. It’s been long enough now to grow fond of the Al Bundy school of fatherhood.
Or that’s at least a stray thread of take-away picked off the first couple of episodes of Fox’s tepid new comedy “Surviving Jack” (premiering Thursday), starring Christopher Meloni (of the “Law & Order” franchise) as Jack, a successful oncologist and former military doctor who takes on more parenting duties so that his wife, Joanne (Rachael Harris), can go back to law school.
Based on Justin Halpern’s coming-of-age memoir “I Suck at Girls,” the show is set in the fall of 1991. As we’ve learned from the ’80s-based ABC sitcom “The Goldbergs” (and, to a lesser degree, NBC’s “Growing Up Fisher”), a drill-sarge dad like Jack is more comfortable as a loud caricature preserved in the recent past, where he is safe from contemporary disapproval and met with we-loved-him-anyhow memories.
This is the second of Halpern’s books to get the sitcom treatment (the first being the failed “$#*! My Dad Says” on CBS in 2010, which was originally drawn from Halpern’s Twitter account). The theme is by now redundant, with the son lovingly recalling how his dad’s hardheadedness molded the rough material of a boy into a neurotic but capable man.
“Surviving Jack’s” early-’90s throwback is somewhat skillfully depicted and set-decorated, but it’s mainly an excuse to air out what appear to be the mothballed wardrobes from the original “Beverly Hills 90210,” including the T-shirt that changes colors according to body temperature. Vanilla Ice and Marky Mark references find refuge here, in a world where Internet-less teenage boys must prowl the woods for discarded porn magazines.
Though Jack is the title character, the story is seen mainly through the eyes of Frankie (Connor Buckley), a high school freshman who, as the title of Halpern’s book suggests, has little to no confidence when it comes to the opposite sex.
Buckley brings a gangly, likeable approach to the role, but the adults — Meloni and Harris — are far more interesting to watch. However, no one, including the older teenage sister (Claudia Lee), can survive “Surviving Jack’s” hollow and formulaic dialogue, which is bursting with jokes that are half-funny at best.
(30 minutes) premieres Thursday at 9:30 p.m. on Fox.