This September will mark 30 years since “Cheers” debuted.
Lord knows how many bars have shown up in how many sitcoms since then, but you’ve surely noticed how they hardly ever seem like actual bars. The din is low enough so that the audience can hear the cast members lightly insult one another, and the purposefully shabby set decoration always seems too clean. The magic of such a place is scrambled by television’s permanent Ruby Tuesday vibe.
But “Sullivan & Son,” a polished and fairly funny new sitcom on TBS, quickly surmounts the difficulties of this sub-genre. Steve Byrne, a stand-up comedian of Korean and Irish descent, plays Steve Sullivan, the oldest child of a Pittsburgh pub owner. Sitcom Steve’s father, Jack (Dan Lauria), met his mother, Ok Cha (Jodi Long), while he was stationed on a Marine base in South Korea.
In the pilot episode (the first of two airing Thursday night), successful corporate attorney Steve returns from New York with a snooty girlfriend in tow. When his parents announce their intention to sell the bar, a wave of nostalgia overtakes Steve and he decides to buy the bar and run it. So long, girlfriend; hello, hangover jokes.
As with Byrne’s comedy routines about his real-life upbringing, much is made of his racial hybrid, which doesn’t turn out to be all that exotic or interesting, but it does provide an easy dispensation for the show’s writers to make just about all the race-related cracks they can conjure.
“Here at Sullivan & Son, we are all one community,” declares Hank (Brian Doyle-Murray), the pub’s racist, permanent denizen. “The Catholics, the Italians, the coloreds, the Koreans, the normal whites. Now we can all work together to keep the Mexicans out. Because that’s really a line we do not want to cross.”
“We’re here already,” says a Latino customer.
“I thought you were Indian,” Hank replies.
No problem, as the cocktail waitresses are so fond of saying nowadays (instead of “you’re welcome”). “Sullivan & Son” has wisely over-populated its pub with a surprisingly high-caliber, better-than-usual ensemble of misfits, along with Doyle-Murray. (For that reason alone, the show has fleeting moments of “Cheers” resonance.) The great Christine Ebersole — another “Saturday Night Live” alum of yore, like Doyle-Murray — plays Carol, the neighborhood boozy floozy; comedian Owen Benjamin plays her lovably dense adult son, Owen, aka “Slowen.”
To this you can add a tow truck driver named Ahmed (played by Ahmed Ahmed), a video store employee with nothing to do (Roy Wood Jr.) and a pert EMS worker (Valerie Azlynn) who was Steve’s childhood crush. Vivian Bang plays Steve’s eternally jealous younger sister.
Nothing about “Sullivan & Son” is all that original, and no one is going to accuse it of being “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” But within a few episodes and with slightly lowered expectations, it gets a good buzz going. (The show’s executive producer is actor Vince Vaughn, who knows a thing or two about stories set in bars and how to make comedic banter seem effortless.)
“Guess the exact time,” Roy says to Owen and Ahmed, over beers.
“Oh, I love this game,” Owen says. “So much better than Eat It and Keep It Down.”
“Personally, I’m a fan of Raisin or Not-a-Raisin,” Steve says.
“Oh, me, too,” Owen says. “One time I lost at Raisin or Not-a-Raisin, but then I won Eat It and Keep It Down.”
Admittedly, that’s not delicious Emmy material, and it’s a long way from Cliff and Norm. But I did eat up this show, and I did keep it down. And when it comes to cable sitcoms, that could be taken as praise.
(two episodes, one hour) premieres Thursday at 10 p.m. on TBS.