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Fox's Giddy 'Free Ride,' Shaper of Sitcoms to Come

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 1, 2006

The bright young stars of Fox's new sitcom "Free Ride," premiering tonight after "American Idol," aren't just true to their roots -- the improv theaters and comedy clubs where they honed their craft. They have brought their roots with them. The show is part scripted and part improvised, making it at least nominally new for network prime time.

Pompous though it might sound, "Free Ride" marks another step in the evolution of the sitcom, a format believed to have died when "Seinfeld" was canceled. Ah, but then came "Seinfeld" co-producer Larry David with "Curb Your Enthusiasm," with dialogue largely improvised to flesh out stories and arcs plotted out by David. Appropriately enough, David -- in real life and on the show -- drives one of them hybrid cars. We are living, ladies and gentlemen, in hybrid times.

So it's appropriate that "Free Ride" has its fittingly tipsy-dipsy feel to it. One character even compares his and his mother's lives to a Mobius strip and says they both have met back where they started -- both alone, except for each other, and wondering what to ask out of life.

The question also shadows the show's hero, Nate Stahlings, played engagingly by Josh Dean, who might be considered a young Topher Grace. Who knew it was already time for a "young" one of those? The first one has barely registered. But that's how things are now. Maybe this is the Age of Barely Registering.

Nate is a member of what generation, then? Maybe it could be called "Generation Huh?" -- a group without much of a profile or distinguishing characteristics but united by the refusal to rebel because rebelling is uncool. In the premiere, Nate, having washed out at or dropped out of college in Santa Barbara, Calif., returns to his cramped home town of Johnson City, Mo., only to discover that it and the kids he went to high school with are much as he left it -- stranded between unpleasant alternatives.

Nate's room, however, is not as he left it. His desperately trend-chasing parents (Loretta Fox and Allan Havey), deep into the cliches of therapy, have turned their son's room into a gym in which they can work up sweats trying to stay young. Then they tell Nate, to his utter mortification, that they're going off to the bedroom to spice up their sex lives by fantasizing they're Katie Couric and Brad Pitt.

The garage will serve just dandily as a room for Nate once the family picks up an air mattress at the local Cash-Cutters, a Wal-Mart clone whose unspoken slogan is: "Always low expectations -- always."

At that gigaplex, Nate runs into a spaced-out frankfurter named Dove (Dave Sheridan), who zooms around town revving the devil out of the oversize engine on his monster truck (yes, flames painted on the front and sides). More promisingly, from Nate's point of view, he discovers his old flame Amber Danwood (Erin Cahill) working as a drive-through teller at a local bank. Amber flirts like there's no tomorrow. She also flirts like there's no fiance, but there is; the poor girl, thinking she'd better grasp at the last available straw, got herself hitched to a thuggish twit, distant cousin to virtually any of the ROTC boys in "Animal House."

The characters don't stand out against the background of Strip-Mall America because sometimes the background takes the foreground. Either way, the results are often wickedly amusing. One problem with the show, though, is that it is shot very tight, with too many close-ups, by hand-held cameras held by jumpy, jerky hands. It's a sitcom that looks like a news report from a flood site, just what you don't want to watch on your new 60-inch wall-screen television set.

But even when it's annoying, the show has a tendency to be funny. In a second episode -- to air March 12 in the show's regular time slot of Sundays at 8:30 -- Nate's Aunt Louise is so determined to deny the passage of years that she insists on dating big, goofy Dove, although the evening is cut short when Louise must return home for a pitched battle over a chair in her front yard (with her husband doing the pitching).

"Free Ride" pulls us into a society genetically engineered for outright pandemonium yet populated by enough level-headed young adults that it's repeatedly spared an inconvenience along the lines of the fall of the Roman Empire or the bloody havoc of the French Revolution. People don't want to burn down the Cash-Cutters -- or the ghastly Australian-themed restaurant where Nate must address customers with "G'day, mate" -- even though they might hate them. The trick to survival is pretend things are so bad they're good, and view each week as a jungle to carve your way through en route to the weekend.

Whether "Free Ride" becomes a big hit or a tiny detail, it seems fair to say that this fresh, freaky show will affect all the sitcoms that follow it for some time to come -- weeks, months or years. There's something new in the air, and it's laced with nitrous oxide.

Free Ride (30 minutes) airs tonight at 9:30 on Channel 5.

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