Long before "Jersey Shore" proudly planted its spray-tanned flag on MTV's moon, symbolically marking its terrain as a reality hit, viewers complained that the so-called "music channel" had moved too far from the tunes.
Now, another Viacom-owned, music-themed network is cautiously testing the waters of moving away from its signature genre - this time, with its first venture into scripted series.
On Friday night, CMT (Country Music Television) will premiere "Working Class," a half-hour, multi-camera sitcom about a good-hearted family struggling to make ends meet - and fit in a snobby upper-middle-class neighborhood - during tough economic times.
CMT, whose sister channels include MTV and VH1, has long included alternative programming on its schedule. Now, executives are confident that taking yet another step away from the "music" in the network's title won't alienate the core audience that has come to expect programs such as "My Big Redneck Wedding," "Trick My Truck" and "The Singing Bee," along with music videos and country-music-themed programs.
"I don't think it replaces those at all," said Brad Johnson, CMT's senior vice president of comedy development. "The goal is always to just keep growing. . . . We're just hopefully adding a layer of programming that people will find entertaining."
The very family-friendly "Working Class" is from creator and executive producer Jill Cargerman. The show stars comedian Melissa Peterman (of WB's "Reba" fame) as Carli, a goofy-but-determined, twice-divorced mom of three who talks a mile a minute and is a constant stream of one-liners and stress. The series opens with her frantically paying bills and watering down a carton of milk. Having moved to an upscale Midwestern suburb to give her kids "the good life," Carli works behind a deli counter and enviously watches other women sip coffee after yoga and buy $30 worth of gourmet treats for their purse dogs.
"Can you believe she feeds her dog better than I feed my kids?" she groans to her co-worker, Hank (Ed Asner, who embraces his cranky-old-man role). Hanks replies that in their snooty town, "You can't throw a rock without hitting a hybrid Lexus. Though that never stops me."
But as much as Carli complains about her life - and writes "please?" in the memo line of a postdated check when she tries to pay her son's dental bill without health insurance - Peterman plays the role as if she knows that deep down, even though she can't live the post-yoga latte life, the hand she was dealt isn't too shabby.
Cargerman, formerly a writer-producer on the NBC drama "Las Vegas" and the CBS sitcom "Gary Unmarried," says "Working Class" is inspired by her own life, growing up in a ritzy suburb outside Chicago with the constant fish-out-of-water feeling of a family that didn't fit in with its more privileged neighbors.
"Part of not having what everybody else had was that we found ways to laugh about it," Cargerman said. "I didn't realize it at the time, but it actually brought us closer together."
The "awww" feel-good attitude is what made the script stand out, said CMT exec Johnson, who received hundreds of them when he put out the call that CMT was looking to expand into the scripted world.
"Working Class," a project formerly in development at ABC, struck a chord because like so many other ideas about downsizing, it didn't have a pitiful, woe-is-me feel to it, Johnson said.
"I think we've all been downsized - there's very few of us who have escaped this recession without a few bruises," he added. "It was a hopeful message."
Sure enough, "Working Class" hammers home the optimism - and is also immersed in a world of typical comedy-series moments and comic misunderstandings, the twists you're not supposed to see coming, but always do. There's the slacker family member: Carli's brother, Nick (Steve Kazee), who lives rent-free, increasing the utility bill by taking long showers to deep-condition his hair. There are also the sitcom-cute kids.
But with all the expected, "Working Class" has the refreshing feel of an old-school half-hour of television that requires nothing but to enjoy the occasional cheesy humor (including plenty of puns).
Johnson says it's a needed change on the TV landscape - and worth the big investment to help CMT try to expand its brand and find more scripted series.
"It's not ironic; it's not snarky. It's just real," Johnson said. "It's very positive, and I think that's a good message to give out right now."
Working Class (30 minutes) debuts Friday with back-to-back episodes at 8 and 8:30 p.m. on CMT.