On the Laugh Track

Everything old is new again? Kelsey Grammer with Patricia Heaton and Fred Willard in the new sitcom
Everything old is new again? Kelsey Grammer with Patricia Heaton and Fred Willard in the new sitcom "Back to You." (By Carin Baer -- Fox)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 19, 2007

If there's such a thing as "the honor" of the sitcom, then Fox's "Back to You" does its utmost to uphold it. And yet neither it nor any of the other four new sitcoms on the networks' fall schedules could be called a breakthrough for the once-dominant, now-dormant genre.

On the surface -- and surface is about all there is here -- "Back to You," premiering tonight on Fox, qualifies as snappy craftsmanship. It shares its setting -- the newsroom of a TV station -- with a television classic, "Mary Tyler Moore" ("Back to You" is in Pittsburgh as opposed to "MTM's" Minneapolis). The cast of characters is a human menagerie of distinctive personalities, or at least types, and the actors tear into the script with eyes bright and tails bushy.

The two stars, Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton, are of course veterans of venerable sitcoms, with Grammer having played Frasier Crane on two series, "Cheers" and "Frasier," both long-running hits. Heaton starred for nine seasons as the wife of Ray Romano on the CBS sitcom "Everybody Loves Raymond," and nearly everybody loved her in the role. Together, the two performers embody more than a quarter-century of prime-time TV history and viewer satisfaction.

As former lovers and co-anchors Chuck Darling and Kelly Carr, who did not part amicably and are now forced into a professional partnership as the new WURG anchor team, Grammer and Heaton get to bounce snarky barbs off each other while maintaining the requisite sexual tension and that certain air of savoir-faire ("in the merry old land of Oz"). The show has what might be called a healthy gag reflex; the jokes keep coming, bingety-bang, with the occasional topical reference (an embarrassing video circulated on YouTube) to remind us this is all happening now.

The problem is that we need reminding. Very little about "Back to You" couldn't have been done 10 or maybe even 20 years ago. "Back to You" is back to the 20th century and to a Television Land not seriously threatened by e-mail or iPods and to networks not worried about inroads made by basic cable. It was also a pre-"Seinfeld" world in which viewers were perhaps more willing, if not eager, to accept familiar formulas and stock situations. It's not that sitcoms would never be the same after "Seinfeld," but that they might never dominate prime time as they had for most of TV history.

Maybe the return to traditional form represented by "Back to You" will strike some viewers as comforting, as cozy as a beaten-up old Barcalounger, but it seems more likely that viewers will perceive a kind of pallor to the proceedings, maybe even the angsty ache of anachronism. Grammer braying "Oh my God!" late in the pilot sounds just like Frasier braying "Oh my God!" on that character's show, and although Heaton gets to be a bit more tart than she was on Romano's series, her sarcastic rejoinders to a vain and goofy male are not strikingly fresh.

Some things about the show are cheerful old reliables that are perhaps safely beyond changing times and styles. Or at least one thing is, anyway: Fred Willard, doing his lovably fatuous shtick as the station's excessively happy sportscaster. Willard might be accused of repetition in his many, not-very-varied roles over the years, but his manner could more aptly be considered classic and his persona that of a timeless and indefatigable boob -- a creature that will never become extinct.

Grammer and Willard play industry veterans renewing old acquaintance. The premise has Grammer returning, humbled, to the Pittsburgh station after having left it for such seemingly greener pastures as Denver, Minneapolis (a nod to "MTM," perhaps) and, most recently, Los Angeles, where his career at Channel 3 ended with some sort of embarrassing freak-out on the air.

Other characters making exits, entrances and prefabricated wisecracks throughout the half-hour include a blimpish boy-wonder news director who proudly declares that he got his job by making a splash in cyberspace and has few if any genuine qualifications; a disgruntled reporter who thinks he, not Darling, should be anchor ("You had to bring back the big-market blowhard!"); and a "weather girl," as such personalities used to be called, who prefers the term "meteorologist" although she isn't one and claims to be Hispanic although, according to a co-worker, she's only one-eighth Nicaraguan.

Yes, they're wicked wacky, this group, but they also seem to have been torn from the pages of the Sitcom Writer's Handbook, their status as foils and fools having been measured out in carefully calculated amounts, the final goal appearing to be not so much nonstop hilarity as the reassuring guarantee of No Surprises. In terms of plot, there is something of a surprise near the end of the pilot, a development that Fox has asked critics not to reveal but which most viewers are likely to figure out anyway.

"Back to You" is put over with gusto, some of it forced and extreme. I was reminded of a memorable "Twilight Zone" in which a young woman trapped in a department store discovers she's really a mannequin, part of an artificial race whose members take turns being real people, each for a day or two at a time. Sitcom characters are like that: a separate species with minimal behavioral latitudes.

Each season, critics, TV executives and network observers hope for the series that will bring sitcoms back with the freshness and brilliance of a "Seinfeld" or a "Cosby" or, for that matter, a "Cheers" or an "Everybody Loves Raymond." Whatever else it might be, including fitfully funny, "Back to You" is definitely not that show.

Back to You (30 minutes) debuts tonight at 8 on Channel 5.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company