ABC's 'Sons': New Blood for The Anemic Sitcom Genre

Gillian Vigman, above left, Fred Goss and Lexi Jourden in the family sitcom
Gillian Vigman, above left, Fred Goss and Lexi Jourden in the family sitcom "Sons & Daughters." Below, Robert Patrick, left, Regina Taylor, Max Martini and Abby Brammell are a different kind of family in "The Unit." (By David Bjerke -- Abc)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 7, 2006

Just when you think the hat is truly and irreparably empty, somebody pulls another daffy rabbit out of it. The magical thing about this rabbit is that it's a situation comedy, and a sitcom about family matters at that. It's thus the kind that the black silk hat of television has lately seemed almost incapable of producing.

But "Sons & Daughters," premiering with two back-to-back episodes at 9 on Channel 7, has what might be called a warm sort of madness going for it. The series is richly decorated with hilarious and painfully recognizable details about family life, but it's not a nutcase farce like Fox's funny but not terribly involving "Arrested Development."

You can believe the people in "Sons & Daughters" really exist. You might even know a few of them -- or be related to them. As families provide ready-made friends for those who might otherwise not have many, they also equip us at birth with irritants, nemeses and embarrassing oddballs we might otherwise escape.

There are so many characters in "Sons & Daughters" -- which profiles two families interlocked by marriages or almost-marriages -- that in the first scenes, each new face is accompanied with a large caption telling us who the heck we're looking at. One blundering oaf is succinctly identified as "Whitey -- Father of Jenna's child but not her husband." Jenna is the stepdaughter of Cameron and Liz, and she explains Whitey's presence in her life thus: "He was cool in high school."

Lives and family fates turn, of course, on such minutiae.

At the heart of the maelstrom is Fred Goss as Cameron. Goss is ideal at playing the beleaguered dad, one who's had three kids with Liz and had another, now an amusingly mixed-up teenage son, with, er, somebody else. That would be Henry Walker (Trevor Einhorn) who, when we first meet him, looks like the cheerfully infamous female impersonator Divine.

Goss also created the show with writing partner Nick Holly (and Goss also directs, at least on the early episodes). As with "Free Ride," which premiered last week on Fox, the comedy is a mixture of the scripted and the improvised. Two shows do not a trend make, of course, but the fact that both of these work wonders with subject matter that's older than TV suggests this hybrid approach might be the sitcom's salvation.

"Sons & Daughters" turns the banalities of family life upside down and inside out and finds something new, and even something cherishable, in many of them. Sex is often a subject for discussion, of course, whether by Don and Sharon (Jerry Lambert and Alison Quinn), whose fantasies are riotous, or by Cameron's 13-year-old niece Carrie (Eden Sher), who feels she is sophisticated enough to demand answers to such questions as, "Mom, why do you and Dad sleep in separate beds?" She begins another question with "When you guys do it --" but mom cuts her off.

In the first episode, mayhem, chicanery and pandemonium evolve from a simple thought uttered aloud by Max Gail as Wendal, the reigning grandfather. He's thinking of leaving Grandma (the ever-reliable Dee Wallace), and what better time to have this errant notion than on the eve of their 25th-anniversary party. He lives to regret it about a thousand times over, but Gail has an easygoing unflappability that suggests a man who really has navigated many a domestic storm.

Even the show's behind-the-scenes family is a bit confusing. Broadway Video, the production company run by Lorne Michaels, Mr. "Saturday Night Live," produces the show in tandem with NBC Universal, but it's airing on, and could be a hit for, ABC. It's a new world. And "Sons & Daughters" deserves to be a part of it. It's an embraceable howl.

'The Unit'

"The Unit" is amazing: a stylishly reactionary drama series about still another top-secret elite military fighting unit -- and yet a show that might have strong female appeal, as has almost never been the case with previous examples of this genre. Put on a military show, it was always assumed, and a network could kiss female viewers goodbye.

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