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NBC returns for fall with a lackluster lineup

/ Source: The Associated Press

“Father of the Pride,” the first and most iffy of NBC’s lackluster lineup of new fall shows, premieres Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET after months of anticipation.

(MSNBC is a joint venture of NBC and Microsoft.)

As everyone knows, it’s being hyped as an innovative comedy with youth appeal but adult raciness, expensively employing the same computer animation used for the “Shrek” films by the same studio (DreamWorks), and boasting top-notch voice talent including John Goodman, Cheryl Hines and Carl Reiner.

As everyone knows, the series fancifully depicts the family life of just-like-people lions featured in the Las Vegas animal act of Siegfried & Roy.

And as everyone surely knows, Roy Horn was critically injured by a 300-pound tiger during a sold-out performance at The Mirage hotel-casino last October — after the series was already announced and well into production.

Now that “Father of the Pride” is finally going on the air, the audience’s challenge will be accepting the show as a thing apart from its real-life, tragically affected source material.

Just another family sitcomBut what then? Even if the premise buttressing “Father of the Pride” hadn’t collapsed, would the show be everything it means to be? Doubtful. The dialogue is clever and the animation meets “Shrek” standards. But it all adds up to more of the same: just another family sitcom.

For instance, the premiere episode finds Larry the head lion (voiced by Goodman) in a typical sitcom jam: Wife Kate (Hines) won’t have sex with him until he can find someone to date a lovelorn friend.

“Larry, this isn’t really the time,” says Kate, whose friend is planted on the living room couch.

“This is the PERFECT time,” he reasons. “You’re in heat. I’m not hungry. I just peed.”

Computer animation doesn’t make a comedy innovative. Saying “in heat” doesn’t make it edgy. “Father of the Pride” isn’t irreverent enough to score many points with the cool crowd, but a more general audience may not relate to cuddly wild animals with a naughty streak. Unlike “The Simpsons,” which brilliantly caters to multiple tastes, “Father of the Pride” may end up satisfying nobody. It’s a family sitcom about lions that is neither fish nor fowl.

It’s also a show that’s been tainted by tragedy. In the aftermath of Horn’s mauling, there’s something ghoulish about watching him and Siegfried Fischbacher spoofed as a pair of flamboyant nattering prisses, more cartoonish than the human-like animals that work for them. There’s something about it that feels outdated, too, since their act, of course, is defunct.

This is a big, maybe insurmountable, problem for NBC. But oddly enough, the network dares to compound its dilemma. On Sept. 15, it will air a one-hour special, “Siegfried & Roy: The Miracle,” which promises an exclusive interview with Horn conducted by Maria Shriver and “new details about his against-all-odds recovery.”

If there’s anything “Father of the Pride” doesn’t need, it’s for viewers to be reminded of “Roy’s journey, beginning with the accident that caused his injuries and subsequent stroke, through his ongoing recuperation.”

NBC should have already learned this lesson. At its annual “upfront” for advertisers last May, the network featured a pre-taped appearance by Horn as part of its gala presentation. But the sight of him bummed out many members of the audience. One likened the experience to visiting an intensive care unit.

NBC’s special will surely score the network a big audience. But at what cost, once those viewers are reacquainted with Horn’s harsh reality? Harsh reality can put a serious damper on laughs. “Father of the Pride” has none to spare.

Other new seriesAs it happens, the show is just one among a five-series fall slate that reveals few signs of fresh thinking by NBC: The “Friends” spinoff “Joey” (trading on an idea unveiled 10 years ago); “Medical Investigation” (a “germ whodunit” as plodding and generic as its title); “LAX” (a lax drama that pairs Heather Locklear and Blair Underwood as friendly rivals running Los Angeles International Airport).

And premiering Wednesday at 8 p.m., “Hawaii” is a cop drama that doesn’t cop to a moment of originality.

It’s a testosterone-heavy tropical romp with car chases and gunplay. It’s a buddy show with not just one, but two pairs of buddy detectives, plus a sexy female officer. There’s tough-guy dialogue like “Don’t even think about it” and “I’m gonna talk — and you’re gonna listen.” There’s a car-trunk full of severed human heads, and intermittent efforts at comic relief.

Think: “Hawaii Five-O” crossed with “Starsky and Hutch” 30 years later, cliches intact.

NBC, which increasingly has cast its lot with the “Law & Order” franchise (a fourth edition is due by midseason) and was saved last season by “The Apprentice” (returning Sept. 9), seems nowadays to lack the will to launch any scripted series that’s truly new and different.

Unlike ABC’s “Desperate Housewives,” CBS’ “Clubhouse,” Fox’s “House,” UPN’s “Veronica Mars” or the WB’s “Jack & Bobby,” NBC is defaulting to well-thumbed scripted formulas — even when, as with “Father of the Pride,” it claims to be taking creative risks. Cutting-edge or old hat? Maybe NBC has lost sight of the difference.