Back to sitcom basics with ‘Back to You’ on Fox

[25 July 2007]

By Mike Duffy

Detroit Free Press (MCT)

LOS ANGELES—“Back to You” would seem to be a lock for big laughs and breakout success.

It’s blessed with a classic Emmy Award-winning dream team of comic chemistry, led by Kelsey Grammer (“Frasier,” “Cheers”) and Patricia Heaton (“Everybody Loves Raymond”). And they’re working with top producers Steven Levitan (“Just Shoot Me”) and Christopher Lloyd (“Frasier”) to create stories about an awkwardly reunited Pittsburgh TV news team.

So what’s with all the fretting and doubts?

Well, this is 2007, not 1997. And the so-called traditional situation comedy—the one filmed with multiple cameras before a live studio audience, like shows from “I Love Lucy” to “All in the Family” to “Seinfeld”—has become an increasingly endangered species, viewed by many as a wheezing relic of a bygone era.

“It’s sort of become cool to trash the sitcom,” acknowledges Levitan. “I understand why, because I think there have been a lot of bad shows throughout the years.”

But it’s not like “Back to You” is just another “According to Jim.”

The series, which premieres on Fox in mid-September, was hotly pursued by several networks.

“`Back to You’ is on our air because we think it’s a funny show, that plain, that simple,” says Peter Liguori, chairman of Fox Entertainment.

As for the notion of teaming up with Grammer, Heaton had no doubts.

“It just seemed right. I just thought, `Oh God, me and Kelsey together would be a lot of fun,’” said Heaton, who joined Grammer and producers Levitan and Lloyd to talk with reporters the other day.

The local TV news concept also tickled Grammer’s fancy.

“I like to think that based upon my knowledge of most television news casting now, it has nothing to do with the news anyway,” said Grammer. “So I’m very happy to just be another performer pretending to be a performer.”

Like some mash-up of Frasier Crane and Ted Baxter, Grammer’s new comic alter ego, TV anchorman Chuck Darling, is a real piece of witty work.

Less buffoonish than Baxter, and less effete than Crane, aging ladies man Darling is nonetheless full of himself.

“I think what makes him funny is that he has a kind of arrogance and a comfort in his own ego,” Grammer noted. That ego is slightly bruised now that Darling has recently tumbled down the career ladder, bouncing back to Pittsburgh’s WURG-TV after an on-air outburst landed on YouTube and resulted in his firing from a hotshot anchor job in Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, Heaton’s uptight, forthright anchor Kelly Carr is not exactly overwhelmed that she’s once again to be paired on air with smug Chuck. Therein lies the comic friction.

“What’s so funny to me about local news is there’s this great narcissism pretending to be altruism,” says Levitan. “It’s just a wonderful place for a larger-than-life character to be a big fish in a small pond.”

Levitan is no TV news novice. After college, he worked as a local TV reporter and anchor for two years at a station in Madison, Wis. And he’s relying on an old friend, Pittsburgh news anchor Ken Rice, for script feedback.

Lloyd and Levitan designed “Back to You” for Grammer, tailoring the Chuck Darling persona to his special comic gifts.

“He plays big attitudes well, and pomposity,” said Lloyd, whose writing on “Frasier” helped lead that series to a record five straight Emmys as TV’s best comedy. But that sort of legacy casts a big shadow. And it’s tricky creating a new alter ego that’s not just a pale copy.

“We wanted someone that was obviously not Frasier again,” said Lloyd, “but not so far away from Frasier that people would say, `Well, what, he’s a sheriff in Alaska?’”

Both Grammer and Heaton thrive on the energy generated by a live studio audience.

“So it just seemed like a natural fit to go back to the form that, frankly, we know pretty well and have a lot of experience and feel comfort in,” said Lloyd.

In fact, the most popular sitcom on television, CBS’s “Two and a Half Men,” is a traditional sitcom complete with guffawing studio audience. But increasingly, younger viewers have been drawn to a supposedly hipper comic alternative—the single camera sitcom filmed like a movie, minus a chortling laugh track—shows like “The Office,” “30 Rock,” “Arrested Development” and “Entourage.”

But maybe there’s still a little zing in that traditional thing.

Fox seems to think so. Later this season, indie film queen Parker Posey will make her TV series debut in “The Return of Jezebel James,” another traditional sitcom, this one filmed in the same New York studio that was home to “The Cosby Show.”

To Heaton, as a performer, the whole fuss over form seems a little silly.

“It’s not the format as much as it is, do you want to explore these people’s lives, is there something interesting, is it going to be fun? It’s got to be fun and funny.”

And fashionable or not, cool or uncool, Grammer’s happy to be carrying on the traditional sitcom tradition. But he grew mildly testy at questions about the genre’s ostensible creakiness: “If by traditional you mean funny, yes, it’s very traditional.”

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