In "Littleshots," an unsold NBC pilot at 8:30 tonight on Channel 4, executive producers Ron Howard and Anson Williams have tried to engineer a family-audience sitcom in which kids talk and behave like real kids, not like little Henny Youngmans, the TV norm. The goal is ambitious, the result at this stage only semi-enchanting.
The child's universe portrayed in "Littleshots," a mellow California update of the "Our Gang" comedies, is populated by few adults. They appear mainly as obstacles to be overcome or avoided. Children are largely the masters of their own fates, and, happily, few laughs in the program, which was written by Robert Dolman and directed by Howard, depend on the tiresome gimmick of making children mere parodies of adults--always a specious enterprise.
Besides, a better case could be made that adults are parodies of children. Certainly a lot of 'em that I know are.
And bad parodies at that.
But we digress.
In "Littleshots," two plot lines intermingle. One has a group of neighborhood tykes greeting the arrival of a seemingly snobbish new kid on the block from New Zealand. His name is D'Arcy, which subjects him to ridicule right off the bat, and he wears a neat little tie, suit and cap, which only gives the scoffers more fodder. Eventually D'Arcy proves himself stalwart by befuddling a neighborhood weirdo and by tactfully demonstrating the peaceful alternative to a fistfight.
Meanwhile, two little girls have innocently borrowed the infant son of a neighborhood mom, who is naturally driven to consternation when she discovers the child is missing. It is hard to find much humor in her plight, a sorry excuse for a plot turn in a sitcom.
But what's winning about the show is the naturalness of the children, especially when they just sit around and shoot the breeze. The take-charge kid on the premises is Pete, played by a very authoritative Joey Lawrence, who handily dominates the show. When his friend Spitter says, "Aw, Pete, you're a bad influence," Pete says, "Thank you!"
After what was reportedly an exhaustive talent hunt for children who had not yet developed showbizzy kinds of cuteness and solicitude, Williams, Howard and Dolman worked with the kids and gave them "input" into the script and situations. Unfortunately, the script is thin and the situations famished--and Howard's direction uncharacteristically hesitant--but the half hour does offer respite from the screechy tones of the usual cacophonous sitcom, and its appeal boils down to one central truth: The kids are incredibly adorable.
One of the functions of television is to provide surrogate children for childless viewers. "Littleshots" fills this role with sweet efficiency. But to succeed as a weekly series, it would have to go farther than that.