Sitcom not up to stars' power

The Baltimore Sun

It sure is fun to see two sitcom pros strutting their stuff on-screen. If only the same could be said of their behind-the-camera colleagues.

Thus are Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton left high and dry in Fox's much-anticipated, new live-audience comedy Back to You. As warring Pittsburgh news anchors with a past - a tiresome, predictable past - the Emmy winners from Frasier and Everybody Loves Raymond can still snap off a line like nobody's business. Heaton lets him have it as sharply as she did Ray Romano, and Grammer retains his corner on self-centered prissiness. Both can skate from silliness to sentiment in a heartbeat without creating "very special episode" mush.

But the rest of Back of You feels like the final nail in the coffin of the studio-audience sitcom, a wonderfully immediate art form nobody in Hollywood seems remotely able to execute anymore. This case is particularly painful considering the show's pedigree. It's created by Frasier writer-producer Christopher Lloyd and Just Shoot Me's Steven Levitan, a talented twosome here exhibiting every hackneyed trick they've ever encountered. Even stalwart director James Burrows, whose credits stretch back to The Mary Tyler Moore Show and forward through Will & Grace, has fallen into ba-dum-bum punch-line pushiness.

There's the "caliente Latina" weather girl always trilling her rrrrrr's (Ayda Field). And the resentful reporter passed over for the anchor gig (Ty Burrell), who also has a hee-lariously "unpronounceable" Polish name. The agitated young news director (Josh Gad) gets mistaken for the station gofer. Double entendres fly regarding diaphragms (corporeal and contraceptive) and the phonetic resemblance of Latina, mispronounced as La-tie-na, to a woman's private parts.

Are we convulsed yet?

If not, we aren't likely to be, as Back to You continues telegraphing everything it's about to do, then restating what it's done. (Don't think it's only tonight's pilot. Next week's episode exerts itself over a "pumpkin festival" gag with the stacked weather chick.) This is not a winning strategy in an era when single-camera comedies such as The Office and 30 Rock - even the animation of The Simpsons - trust us to find the laughs for ourselves.

There's just too much shtick and not enough personality, especially when the stars' previous hits found their funny in relatable human behavior. While the second episode of Back to You has a snappier pace and sharper timing, it's applied to stories about a goldfish that keeps getting killed, a reporter who gets hee-lariously Tasered, and the fixation of sportscaster Fred Willard (whose off-the-wall weirdness is a matter of taste) on figuring out a magic trick involving an orange in a guy's pants.

Sorry, Fox. Back to the drawing board.

Diane Werts writes for Newsday.

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