In "The War at Home," an unconscionably smutty new sitcom from Fox, a supposedly typical American father named Dave speaks directly into the camera at various intervals to comment on the action. Example: After introducing us to his wife, Dave asks, "Did you check out the rack? Nice, huh?"
Addressing himself to any boys who might at some future point find themselves dating his teenage daughter, Dave brandishes a simple threat: castration.
Such is the tenor of what's deemed proper Sunday night fare on the Fox network (Channel 5), where "The War at Home" premieres tomorrow night at 8:30. Fox's long-running hit "Married . . . With Children" aired on Sunday nights too, so an evening that once was a showcase for decent family fare has long since been tainted by Fox droppings. It's barely worth mourning now, and since "War" is intended as a "Married" for the 21st century, it naturally features filthier filth than its predecessor.
Michael Rapaport is the once-likable actor who, apparently having decided it's a waste of time waiting around for a good script or a respectable vehicle, accepted the starring role of Dave, a persistently mewling dirty-minded reactionary. In his opening monologue to the camera, Dave complains that his own father "had no idea how easy he had it" and that today's generation of parents "has no idea how this marriage and family thing really works."
Rob Lotterstein, who created and produced this show, has no idea what constitutes good comedy -- or, if he does, has taken a solemn oath to avoid committing it to tape.
Blabby ol' Dave, still talking about the American family, continues his rant -- "No one's in charge. It's all a big mess" -- inadvertently sounding like a critic of FEMA or some other embattled bureaucracy. Entertainment Weekly, meanwhile, has astutely noted the insensitivity of launching a series called "The War at Home" on the anniversary of 9/11, dawn of the age of terrorism. At Fox, though, insensitivity is a way of life. It's a given, a tradition, a byword. It's probably tattooed on Rupert Murdoch's fanny.
Much of the pilot deals with two of Dave's recurrent worries: one, that his daughter is dating African American men (his ugly racism is supposed to be cute, apparently) and the other that his fat-faced son Larry might be gay. Cut to a shot of Larry standing in front of a mirror in a long blond wig and red blouse singing along to "I Feel Pretty" from "West Side Story."
As it evolves, Larry is not gay, merely disguising himself as his mother so as to drive her car. What he really wants, he tells his best friend, is to impress girls and change his status from yearning virgin to "well-oiled sex machine." But if he goes to jail for underage driving, his friend warns, he could become a "well-oiled sex machine" of a different nature.
This isn't sick comedy, it's just sickening. Indeed, though the TV season won't start for a week, "The War at Home" stands a good chance of being the worst of all the new sitcoms. The problem is not just that it's crude and gross, but that its crudeness and grossness are so pathetically forced and contrived. Its vulgarity has no integrity.
All the characters are vile in spirit and objectionable in essence, though Anita Barone, as Dave's wife, tries to toss off her lines with something approaching a chipper glibness. Even though the show is farce, it's impossible to imagine this slightly savvy fun-lover would have married a lummox as loathsome as Dave.
During a discussion of daughter Hillary's possible African American boyfriends, Dave asks his wife if she ever dated a black man and is repulsed when she says yes. Is there any way to find this "funny"? Soon Dave has launched himself into an embarrassing discussion of rumors about African American men and their sensuality. "Is it true what they say about black men?" he asks his wife. "Because in the locker room, they're not exactly walking around in full potential."
Are today's American parents really comfortable sitting in front of a TV set and explaining jokes like that to their children? If so, we're in a lot more trouble than even Dave, in his imbecilic running commentary, would indicate.
If the season ahead has many shows as aggressively wretched as this lame loser, then the TV critics of the nation will have to demand substantial raises -- or full-time psychiatric care. Or transfer to the protective solace of, say, the gardening column or hints a la Heloise.
When teenage Hillary screams at her father "I hate you, I hate you, I hate you," she's not just stating a thoroughly logical opinion, she's expressing what any civilized viewer has to be feeling toward "The War at Home."
The War at Home (30 minutes) begins tomorrow night at 8:30 on Channel 5.