In this season's new comedies, casting has too often outclassed concept, with terrific performers trying to elevate material that does not always return the favor. That trend continues Thursday with three shows in which very good actors work very hard with mixed results.
NBC's "Welcome to the Family" is the evening's clear winner, though its catalytic event — teen pregnancy — is not exactly a laughing matter. But to modernize "Bridget Loves Bernie," creator Mike Sikowitz ("Rules of Engagement") had to do something to make the "clashing" culture families mad at each other (simple ethnic disdain is passé and uncool).
So the action opens with a tale of two high school graduations. Dan and Caroline Yoder (Mike O'Malley and Mary McCormack) are ecstatic just to see their headstrong yet ditsy daughter Molly (Ella Rae Peck) cross the stage — "Suck it, doubters," Dan says in exultation — while across town Miguel and Lisette Hernandez (Ricardo Chavira and Justina Machado) beam with pride as their Stanford-bound son Junior (Joey Haro) delivers the valedictorian speech.
Except he is interrupted by a text from Molly telling him she is pregnant and the hilarity begins.
The hilarity being Junior deciding to get married and have the baby before going to college (Junior defers his admission, Molly apparently just bails). Sikowitz skates rather glibly over the sight of two teenagers facing an unplanned pregnancy, not to mention the troubling question of that college attendance (babies don't get cheaper and less disruptive after they're born) because that is not the conflict he wants to deal.
"Welcome to the Family" revolves around the (soon to be grand-) parents rather than the young couple and focuses, righteously, on overthrowing traditional social stereotypes and exploring their replacements. The Hernandez family is the one with grander plans, the more rigorous parenting; the Yoders just want their lovely and infuriating daughter out of the house so they can enjoy a marital renaissance.
Everyone does their bit, performance-wise, but O'Malley, who came to everyone's attention as Kurt's father in "Glee," is the key player here. He and McCormack instantly create a dryly endearing couple, while he and Chavira may turn out to have the most fruitful antagonism since Maude met Archie Bunker.
"Welcome to the Family" is followed on NBC by "Sean Saves the World," which features another less than traditional family. "Will & Grace's" beloved costar Sean Hayes plays Sean, a weekend dad turned full-time father when his ex-wife moves out of state, leaving him in charge of their 14-year-old daughter, Ellie (Samantha Isler).
Oh, and he's also gay, despite his early efforts (ex-wife) to pretend otherwise. Sean is aided on the road to perfect parenting by his also single mother, Lorna (Linda Lavin, doing all she can, which is a lot), and his needy best friend, Liz ("Smash's" Megan Hilty in tight and fetching sweaters).
On top of unraveling the mysteries of adolescent womanhood (bras! parties! boys!), Sean has a less-than-ideal work situation: The online merchandising company he manages has a weird and tyrannical new owner named Max (Thomas Lennon, also doing all he can do though seemingly in another, possibly better show.)
"Sean Saves the World" isn't terrible, it just isn't very good. Hayes knows how to deliver a line, when he's not being asked to pretend he doesn't know how to make toast or to crawl out a bathroom window or, in a later episode, ruin a blind date by throwing a nervous dad fit.
Hilty's character is an unnecessary throwback — the bosomy blond who can't find the right man — but Lavin and Lennon steal every scene they're in; Isler is as good as she can be under the circumstances and "Ben and Kate's" Echo Kellum is again on comedic wing-man duty (in even more fetching sweaters).
Alas, creator Victor Fresco ("Better Off Ted") has apparently decided that Hayes must perform a certain number of over-the-top comedic exertions per episode. And that, along with an unwieldy and vulnerable title — save the world? just save the show — gives "Sean Saves the World" a frantic, erratic pace that keeps it from really getting anywhere.
It is, however, sleek and sophisticated compared with "The Millers," which also premieres Thursday. Apparently when CBS heard that ABC had an overly broad family comedy with a lot of yelling and old-folks sex jokes ("The Goldbergs"), CBS decided it would not be outdone.
In this case, Beau Bridges and Margo Martindale are the ones yelling and making sex jokes while Will Arnett looks on in (justified) horror, which may move "The Millers" out of "unfortunate" into "unforgivable."
Arnett plays Nathan Miller, a TV "reporter" who lives in drop-by proximity to his less-successful sister Debbie (Jayma Mays) and brother-in-law (Nelson Franklin). Both siblings are horrified to learn that their parents, Carol (Martindale) and Tom (Bridges) are coming to stay with Debbie after Tom flooded their own house because Carol is controlling and critical while Tom is a bumbling idiot. Yay.