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Comedies range from hilarious to hideous

In an era when "Desperate Housewives," a soapy drama, finds nominated for the Emmy for best comedy series, fans of the funny will take whatever we can get.
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Oh, great comedies, where have you gone? "The Wonder Years," "The Cosby Show," "Family Ties," "Cheers," "Friends" — you run forever on DVD, but on TV, your descendents sadly stumble along, unable to carry your laugh tracks.

The networks are trying. You may be reminded of "The Wonder Years" by that show's former star, Fred Savage, all grown up and starring in "Crumbs." Or you may think of it when you hear comedian Chris Rock doing Kevin Arnold-esque narration over "Everybody Hates Chris."

You'll almost certainly think of "Friends" when you watch "Four Kings," which mirrors the show almost eerily. And while there's no "Cheers" set in a bar, "Kitchen Confidential" shows some promise at heating up its restaurant setting. Still, in an era when "Desperate Housewives," a soapy drama, finds nominated for the Emmy for best comedy series, fans of the funny will take whatever we can get.    —Gael Fashingbauer Cooper

‘Crumbs’Networks are trying to develop new sitcoms that either revive or reinvent the genre. However, ABC’s Crumbs (midseason), about two brothers (Fred Savage and Eddie McClintock) who must run their family’s restaurant after their father runs out on their mother, doesn’t seem to be the solution.

It’s not the fault of the seasoned cast, which includes Jane Curtin as Suzanne Crumb, the mother who just got out of a psychiatric institution and William Devane (“24”) as their father, a loopy, irresponsible, but semi-charming lout. Savage’s character, Mitch, is a closeted (to his family, at least) screenwriter who is having trouble following up on his one successful movie so far. McClintock plays Jody, who resents his younger brother’s high-profile career and makes up for it with relentless harassment.

But this allegedly crazy family doesn't seem quite loony enough. Given the standard set by the Bluths on “Arrested Development” and the Barones on “Everybody Loves Raymond,” antics like hiding under desks or threatening to shoot someone with a fake gun aren’t going to cut it. Veteran comedic actors aren’t enough to make up for the lack of comedy in the writing.    —Kim Reed

‘Emily’s Reasons Why Not’Ever since “Ally McBeal,” network television has been infatuated with gimmicky shows about single women. The latest entry is “Emily’s Reasons Why Not,” which leverages the appeal of Heather Graham, whose appearances on “Scrubs” and “Arrested Development” presumably got her this shot at her own show.

Graham plays Emily, a flighty book editor whose philosophy of romance has something to do with what she calls “Reasons Why Not,” tidbits of wisdom about what makes men undateable, which actually pop up on the bottom of the screen when they occur to her. It’s all very whimsical, and silly, and not very funny.

Emily has the obligatory acid-tongued friend as well as the obligatory gay friend, and she spends most of the first episode mooning over Stan From Marketing (for that is what she calls him), a pretty new suitor whose potential drawback is the possibility that he might be gay. If you think you’ve seen this plot in one, two, or a hundred comedies in the last 10 years, you’re not wrong.

Ultimately, Graham is inoffensive enough, but stubbornly foolish women just aren’t as funny as network television thinks they are, and this show is no exception.      —Linda Holmes

‘Everybody Hates Chris’Not everybody loved ‘Raymond,’ and the title poked fun at that fact. But "Everybody Hates Chris" (Thursdays, 8 p.m. ET, UPN)goes the other way. On the show, young Chris may really feel everyone hates him, but in real life, the show has been almost universally praised by critics. And for good reason — the show is smartly written, features an excellent cast and actually makes viewers laugh.

Since the show is based on comedian Chris Rock's 1980s childhood in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, Rock himself does a "Wonder Years"-style narration. But his voiceovers are snappy and more joke-filled than Daniel Stern's quieter, gentler "Wonder Years" musings. As young Chris watches boys spray-painting "Bed-Stuy do or die" in his new 'hood, grown Chris snaps "Those are some of the guys that are gonna die."

The show is sure to garner comparisons to "The Cosby Show," but "Roseanne" would be a fitter comparison. Young Chris and his two siblings fight realistically; his harried parents work nonstop to keep a roof over their heads. A running joke is that Chris' father knows the cost of everything ("that's 30 cents of oatmeal!" he scolds); when Chris mistakenly eats the chicken meant for his dad's supper, there's no just running out to buy more. Rock and the writers haven't forgotten their own childhoods, either. Chris is bused to a mostly white junior high where he runs afoul of the school bully. Chris is confident their inevitable fistfight will be stopped soon, but instead time-lapse photography shows that, to him, it goes on forever.

Even in the pilot, Chris and his parents have been given three-dimensional personalities. I hope to see his younger brother and sister develop more in upcoming episodes, a la Darlene and Becky — in the pilot, they're less developed. Like the Conners on "Roseanne" and the Huxtables on "Cosby," this is a loving family getting through life the best way they know how. Here's hoping we get to know them well.    —Gael Fashingbauer Cooper

‘Four Kings’There’s this group of twentysomething friends, see. They live in a New York apartment one of them inherited from a dead grandmother. One of them is vaguely gay, one is vaguely goofy, and all of them are white. They hang out at a coffeehouse and a laundromat and trade quips about this whole “being an adult” thing.

I don’t know if it’s a good thing or just sad that “Four Kings” (midseason, NBC) is so secure in its identity as a “Friends” knockoff that it actually makes a couple of in-jokes about it. Creators David Kohan and Max Mutchnick are best known for creating “Will & Grace,” but remember, they also created “Good Morning, Miami.”

This show isn’t that bad, it’s just unnecessary. There are a few good lines and a few good performances, but really the only reason to watch this (beyond not being able to find the remote), is Seth Green, who is always entertaining no matter what he’s doing. Why the talented Green is in such a predictable sitcom is another question. Run, Seth, run.    —Lori Smith

‘Freddie’It’s clear that the sitcom has fallen on hard times over the last couple of years. Now and then, a show appears with the apparent express purpose of demonstrating just why that is.

“Freddie,” a genuinely terrible comedy, stars Freddie Prinze, Jr., as — you’ll never guess —Freddie, a role in which he does his best to rid himself of whatever already-questionable shreds of charm he has shown in films like “She’s All That” and… well, pretty much just “She’s All That.” Freddie is a hot young Chicago chef, as revealed by the subtle expository dialogue: “You’re one of the best-known chefs in Chicago!” Following the death of his brother, the selfish and womanizing Freddie has taken in his sister, niece, sister-in-law, and grandmother. A veritable gaggle of women!

This gaggle is most inconvenient, given Freddie’s desire to meet chicks and hang out with his dumb, shallow, rich friend, played by — no kidding — Brian Austin Green, of “Beverly Hills, 90210.” How bad is Green? Well, he fits the show.

Dull, clichéd, and disastrous as either a buddy comedy or a family comedy, “Freddie” richly deserves the early boot from the lineup that it will undoubtedly receive.    —L.H.

"Hot Properties"Its “Designing Women”-esque office and “Bob Newhart Show”-like common area sets are really the only things about “Hot Properties” (Fridays, 9:30 p.m. ET, ABC) that come close to the evoking memories of successful sitcoms of the past. The hodge-podge of gratuitous laughter, sex jokes and mugging for the camera wears thin after the first couple of minutes.

The show follows three Oprah-worshiping real-estate agents — and the plastic surgeon and therapist who also office out of their building — as they talk about relationships. But that’s as close to “Sex and the City” as this misfire comes — other than the presence of Evan Handler, who played Charlotte’s bald attorney husband on “Sex.” All the paper-thin sitcom clichés are represented: the voluptuous Latina, the unlucky-at-love loser, the sassy receptionist, and the group’s unflappable leader (Gail O’Grady).

For some reason, a prim and proper client signs on to become the fourth partner, and adds nothing but a Donna Dixon-ish innocent for the three more “worldly” women to throw cynical barbs against. One fairly redeeming point: Playing her character with a welcome modicum of subtlety, O’Grady, late of "American Dreams," manages to hang onto a shred of dignity. But just barely.     —Brian Bellmont

‘How I Met Your Mother’
With the passing of “Everybody Loves Raymond,” it seemed the traditional four-camera sitcom was dead and buried. Recent comedies have had great success without the benefit of studio audiences, such as critically beloved “Arrested Development” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” ... but don’t count out the old-style format just yet. Premiering on "Raymond's" former turf comes "How I Met Your Mother" (Mondays, 8:30 p.m., ET, CBS), one of several promising comedies debuting this fall.

Told in flashback style by narrator Bob Saget, a serious-minded twentysomething (Josh Radnor) would like nothing more than find a nice girl and get married. And the pressure's on since his best friend — "Freaks and Geeks" co-star Jason Segel — has just gotten engaged to "American Pie's" Alyson Hannigan. The script moves along gracefully between the lunacy of Neil Patrick Harris, who tries to get Radnor to "suit up" and get dressed when meeting prospective dates, and the awe-shucks banter between Radnor and the newswoman he courts.

What's nice here is that both storylines — Radnor's search for a wife and the Hannigan-Segel relationship — are engaging. Though she showed off a little bit of her funny side in "Pie," Hannigan is a real comedy find here and delivers every line with gusto.

If the rest of the season is as promising as the pilot, audiences would be smart to let this one "Mother" them all year long.     —Stuart Levine

‘Kitchen Confidential’Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain wrote the non-fiction inspiration for this glossy Fox entry, and given the distance between source material and sitcom, it’s impressive the show works as well as it does.

Readers loved Bourdain’s book for its warts-and-all look at the world behind kitchen doors at New York restaurants. Frighteningly little has survived. Jack Bourdain (Bradley Cooper), the down-and-out chef who helms “Kitchen Confidential” (Mondays, 8:30 ET, FOX) is even more of a party boy than his real-life namesake; a combination of drugs, drinking, thievery and general screwing around get him demoted from rising star at Lutece to a dead-end gig at a Z-grade pasta joint, complete with singing waiters.

Jack’s chance for redemption arrives when he’s tapped as head chef for a tony New York restaurant, Nolita. After he reassembles his crew, “Blues Brothers”-style, the usual roadblocks appear: The restaurant devolves into complete chaos as Jack’s ex shows up on his debut night. True to form for executive producer Darren Star, the ex is a food critic who could sink the whole place. (Improbable? Yes, but the show is rife with food-world gaffes.)

Star does earn credit for giving “Kitchen” a bright, stylish look, and a haute-cuisine kitchen is novel as a sitcom venue. The show stumbles from tired supporting roles — the flaming-gay waiter, the boss’ feisty daughter — and one too many undifferentiated blondes in the cast, notably Jaime King as a bubbleheaded hostess. (C’mon, Fox.)

But Cooper nails his role, with backing from talents like Frank Langella (as owner Pino) and John Cho (as line chef Teddy). The writing and concept are solid enough that “Confidential” may survive the leap from real-life frying pan into a fictional fire.    —Jon Bonné

‘The Loop’
Fox really must be hurting for that mid-20s demographic, because “The Loop” (Wednesdays, 9:30 p.m. ET) has been packed with every possible draw for the post-collegiate working stiff, right down to music cues from Beck and The Cure.

By day, Sam (Bret Harrison) is a Chicago boy-wonder airline exec. (Hey, did “The Loop” split B-roll costs with “Pepper Dennis”?) By night, he lives and parties with his fast-talking slacker of a brother, Sully (Eric Christian Olsen, obviously chanelling Seann William Scott’s Stifler in “American Pie”) and his longtime friend Piper, a too-cute med student whose down-to-earth charm is tarnished by her cluelessness about Sam’s massive crush on her.

The incomparable Philip Baker Hall chews up the screen as an utterly profane airline chief. But everyone gets to have fun. You squirm along as Mimi Rogers, playing a sexually (and otherwise) voracious airline VP, revels in tempting, taunting and even harassing poor Sam, who can’t but indulge her.

“The Loop” rises above its premise, thanks to an ensemble cast with the sort of chemistry that kept “That 70s Show” afloat until it found its footing. Though it could lose the karaoke jokes and freeze-frame captions, a few effective gags appear: Old crank Hall keeps putting Sam’s personal calls on speakerphone, for instance. And the roommates enjoy far more realistic digs, in a kitschy exurban townhouse, than the “Friends” posse ever did.

The show needs more meat on its bones than Sam’s struggle between his day job with his wild nights, plus his quest to win over Piper. But its creators have the raw materials to do it.    —J.B.

‘Love Inc.’It can't be a good sign when the star of your comedy gets dumped before the show ever airs. But what did UPN expect, casting legendary Shannen Doherty in dating-service sitcom "Love Inc." (Thursdays, 9:30 p.m. ET)? This is the woman who inspired an entire "I Hate Brenda" movement back when she played Minnesota teen Brenda Walsh on "90210."

UPN said it dropped Doherty to take the series in another direction. What that means, we have no real idea. She's been replaced by Busy Phillipps, who despite her "Freaks & Geeks" cred, is hardly the household name Doherty was. She'll have a battle ahead of her. "Love Inc." revolves around a dating service based on the "wingwoman" concept — if women think another woman is interested in the guy in question, they'll supposedly want to be with him.

The women in the office have their own inevitable love-life issues. Phillipps' Denise is single, her boss, Holly Robinson Peete, is getting a divorce. The one man in the office, seeming stoner Barry (Vince Vieluf), was annoying at first, but by the end of the pilot his random comments were about the only quirky thing about this unfunny show.    —G.F.C.

‘Misconceptions’Jane Leeves, who gained prime-time fame as Daphne Moon on “Frasier,” returns to the sitcoms with “Misconceptions” (WB, midseason). Leeves plays Amanda Watson, a career woman who opted to have a baby on her own via an Ivy League sperm bank. Years later, her teenaged daughter Hopper (Taylor Momsen) has a very special birthday request — to know who her father is.

After discussing the situation with her co-worker and friend Horace (French Stewart), Amanda decides to track down the doctor-Olympic medalist she thinks is Hopper’s father. Surprise! He’s really just a shlub named Eddie Caprio (Adam Rothenberg). Of course, it is not a surprise that dad is rough-around-the-edges loser — otherwise this wouldn’t be a sitcom. And, of course, Hopper and Eddie do meet, and like each other, forcing Amanda to relent and allow father and daughter to get to know each other, otherwise it would be just one show and not a series.

Fitting right into the traditional sitcom mold, “Misconceptions” is predictable, low-brow and light on real laughs, which is disappointing considering it's produced by Brian Grazer, Ron Howard’s production partner and co-producer on “Arrested Development.”     —Denise Hazlick

‘My Name Is Earl’NBC’s apparent comedy thoroughbred for the season, “My Name Is Earl” (Tuesdays, 9 p.m. ET), rallies thanks to an attention to detail — the same focus on little things that the Coen Brothers use so effectively in their films.

The Coens’ “Raising Arizona” was clearly on the minds of creator Greg Garcia and his writers when they fashioned the premise of “Earl”: A down-and-out delinquent (Jason Lee) wins $100,000 in a scratch-off game, loses his cheating wife and his mobile home, and promptly decides to right all his life’s wrongs — in Earl’s case, a rather long list — using his newfound riches. (An example of the show’s attempt at absurdist humor: Earl gets inspired by an episode of Carson Daly’s TV show. Daly mentions karma; Earl believes Daly invented the notion.)

The whole premise would immediately fall flat if not rescued by that keen eye for detail (one of Earl’s former victims, now a meek copy clerk, takes pride in his shiny blue Le Car), plus Lee’s casually scruffy demeanor and perfect comic timing, imported from his big-screen roles. Though the writing is strong, “Earl” can’t quite nail the introspective-redneck humor that made “King of the Hill” a hit in both red and blue states.

Earl’s list of amends is the driving force here: He’ll knock off one line item per episode, I assume. But once the beer and hooker jokes subside, I’m not sure the writers can find enough secondary plots to keep Earl and his brother Randy (Ethan Suplee) occupied. A similar fate befell ABC’s short-lived “Cupid” in 1998; the show vanished long before Jeremy Piven managed to pair up his 100 lucky couples.    —J.B.

‘Out of Practice’
While there's nothing particularly distasteful or poorly executed about "Out of Practice" (Mondays, 9:30 p.m. ET, CBS), the problem is there's no aftertaste at all. After a single viewing, the sitcom doesn't do enough to distinguish itself from the blandness of failed comedies of seasons past. That's a bad sign this fall, where the competition for laughs has drastically improved.

Christopher Gorham is a couples counselor in a dysfuctional family filled with doctors — and aging TV stars. Specifically, it's the older generation of actors here that brings a promising premise down to a barely watchable crawl.

Stockard Channing is Gorham's overprotective and mostly annoying mother, while the Fonz himself, Henry Winkler, plays Dad, who, lucky for him, just divorced Mom. When it comes to delivering their jokes, both mistakenly go for the knockout punch when subtlety will suffice.Gorham's brother and sister, plastic surgeon Ty Burrell and ER doctor Paula Marshall, are confident enough to know that saying their lines louder doesn't make them any funnier. Burrell, especially, gets the prime rib of the material and is the true breakout star here. Gorham, whose previous series "Jake 2.0" and "Medical Investigations" failed to make it beyond one season, does his best to keep the action moving but doesn't have the gravitas to carry this show on his shoulders. Like his on-screen parents, he's also in the midst of a divorce, yet does anyone really care?In a program full of doctors, no one thought to give  "Practice" much of a heart.    —Stuart Levine

‘Sons and Daughters’ABC’s “Sons and Daughters” (midseason premiere) is a documentary-style sitcom about a complicated and dysfunctional family, and the show has a large cast and no laugh track, which brings to mind FOX’s “Arrested Development.” It’s also partially improvised, and doesn’t shy away from making its characters look unsympathetic or even downright unpleasant, which brings to mind HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

Somehow, though, the show is not derivative, because the cast (including a welcome return to television by Max “Wojo” Gail by “Barney Miller” fame) brings a fresh take to what has become a sitcom cliché — the quarreling blended middle-class family that gossips, fights, and then makes up. Paul Goss, the show’s creator, plays Cameron Walker, the center of the extended family. While at first, Cameron seems like an all-around good guy, eventually he is revealed to be a gossipy neurotic mess. To wit: before a 25th anniversary party, Cameron’s stepfather reveals that he’s going to leave Cameron’s mother, and then swears Cameron to secrecy. Of course, by the end of the party, everyone in the room knows the secret.

Executive producer Lorne Michaels has a wealth of experience shaping improvisational comedy, and finding new talent from his years at “Saturday Night Live.” If network television viewers can embrace this new style of sitcom (which is questionable given the low ratings of “Arrested Development”), “Sons & Daughters” could become a hit. It certainly seems deserved.    —K.R.

‘Thick and Thin’One group that is still fair game for mean-spirited jokes in politically correct America is the overweight and in that spirit, “Saturday Night Live” creator Lorne Michaels offers “Thick and Thin” (NBC, midseason).

Mary Francis (Jessica Capshaw) is a fat, insecure woman now trapped in the body of a svelte hottie. As Mary sheds her oversized clothes for tight jeans and belly shirts, she struggles to lose her negative image of herself. That’s not easy to do with a mom (Sharon Gless), dad (Martin Mull) and still-chubby sister (Amy Halloran) who try to feed her fattening food and bad advice. She also must contend with an ex-husband who suddenly is a lot more interested in the slimmer, sexier Mary.

The only interesting character is Captain Chlorine (played by Chris Parnell), her “leopard-ed” partner in a pool-and-spa company. What we have is all the ingredients for a stereotypical comedy about fat people. Jokes about food, oversized clothing and poor self-esteem — in short, nothing new, including the laugh track. This show is a one-note joke and that joke was already old and tired.      —D.H.

‘Twins’For every original, truly funny comedy (think “Arrested Development” and “Entourage”) there are five garden-variety I-can-guess-the-punchline shows. “Twins” (WB, Fridays, 8:30 ET), unfortunately, falls into the latter category.

Created by David Kohan and Max Mutchnick, the duo that brought the once original and funny “Will & Grace” to TV, this comedy is anything but. The “Twins” in question are Mitchee (Sara Gilbert) and Farrah (Molly Stanton), who are poised to inherit their parents’ lingerie business. Mitchee is the bright (brunette) businesswoman who takes after her brainy father Alan (Mark Linn-Baker). Farrah is a gorgeous (blonde) model who is the apple of her ex-model mother's (Melanie Griffith in her sitcom debut) eye.

Mitchee feels frustrated, too bright to spend her time trying to figure out how to market the company’s new “butt pucker” panties. She also feels like a wallflower, hidden in her beautiful sister’s shadow. Farrah, on the other hand, doesn’t think at all — as is the case with most blondes on sitcoms.  It’s the bright brunettes vs. the ditzy blondes. Yawn. The jokes are shallow and predictable and the prospects for improvement limited.    —D.H.

‘The War at Home’After watching “The War at Home” (Sundays, 8:30 p.m. ET, Fox) you can only conclude that its producers either believe we’re all trapped in the early ‘70s—or we’d like to be.

This meager Sunday-evening replacement carries sensibilities moldy enough to have gone obsolete years before Al Bundy ever shoved his hand down his pants.

In fact, Archie Bunker seems forward-thinking compared to Dave (Michael Rapaport), the suffering Long Island father on this messy hodgepodge.  Dave pleads to keep his 16-year-old daughter Hillary from dating older men, scrambles to figure out whether his 15-year-old son Larry is gay and generally harrumphs at his wife’s long and colorful romantic history. In fact, Archie and Dave would be great neighbors — given Dave’s penchant for drinking, low-level racism and mild homophobia. His wife Vicky copes by sneaking off to the garage for a cigarette.

None of this is terribly interesting, in part because all the gags fall flat with such a deafening thud — and Rapaport can’t carry the material, even with help from Anita Barone as overworked (if no longer oversexed) Vicky. Just to make sure you’re stuck in a time warp, the show props itself up with a laugh track.

In an apparent attempt to force family viewers to digest it, “War” has been shoehorned between “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy.” The bookending will only remind viewers that the sensibilities in “The War at Home” are as painfully outdated as its jokes.    —J.B.

‘What About Brian?’In ABC’s “What About Brian?” (10 p.m. ET, Mondays),Barry Watson (“7th Heaven”) plays a confused single guy who’s trying to fall out of love with Marjorie (Polly Shannon), his best friend’s fiancée. As the ensemble cast requires, he does so surrounded by a collection of friends and relatives.

Some details are sharply observed. It’s funny and painful when Brian tries to dump a bad girlfriend while hauling a mattress on the roof of his car. And the editing and visuals are more inventive than most single-guy dramas would aspire to.

But something is lacking. The biggest problem is that Brian’s obsession with Marjorie isn't compelling, because it isn’t clear why he adores her. If a woman is to represent an unattainable ideal, she should be written as an interesting, appealing person, and played similarly. Marjorie is wonderful only in that we’re told she is — without that information, she would seem fairly pedestrian.

Watson isn’t without charm here, and the show is interesting to look at. But Marjorie just isn’t amazing enough, and Watson’s chemistry with her isn’t strong enough, to support a central conceit based on their relationship. If the writers don’t pull the focus to something else, expect a quick demise.    —L.H.