New series premieres Wednesday: 'Modern Family,' 'Mercy,' 'Eastwick'
Halloween may still be six weeks off, but don't be surprised if you hear an eerie wail from the ghosts of Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, Samantha Stephens and Hot Lips Houlihan as you watch TV Wednesday night. It's an evening for reworked genres, and the wraiths may be outraged — and in a couple of cases, a little jealous — at the posthumous cosmetic surgery they've undergone.
I don't know if Ozzie and Harriet will like the new versions of themselves in ABC's "Modern Family" (9 p.m.), but I certainly did. For the first time since "Married ... With Children" stood the genre on its head two decades ago, somebody has come up with a new take on the family sitcom, and the results are riotously funny.
Produced by Christopher Lloyd and Steven Levitan, who worked on both "Wings" and "Frasier," "Modern Family" follows three marriages. Phil and Claire (Ty Burrell of "Back to You" and Julie Bowen of "Boston Legal") are your traditional mom-dad-and-2.2-kids couple, albeit with lowered expectations: "If my daughter never wakes up on a beach in Florida half-naked, I'll have done my job," declares Claire.
Then there are Jay and Gloria (Ed O'Neill and Sofia Vergara), whose ethnically blended May-December marriage still has some cultural kinks to it, particularly her pride at coming from the most murderous village in Colombia. And Mitchell and Cameron (Jesse Tyler Ferguson of "The Class" and Eric Stonestreet of "CSI") are a gay couple who've just adopted a Vietnamese baby.
On paper, this sounds like an odoriferous stew of political correctness. The reality is anything but. "Modern Family" joyously trashes shibboleths and stereotypes of every conceivable political, ethnic and gender stripe. In one exquisitely funny scene, after a passenger on their plane returning from Vietnam says "Look at that baby with those creampuffs," Mitchell launches a spectacular rant against everybody in the cabin — then turns to his daughter to discover she's smearing pastries on her face.
And even when the show is not upsetting the political-correctness apple cart, the cast is just plain funny. Watch the expression of dazed horror on the face of Sarah Hyland ("Lipstick Jungle"), who plays Phil and Claire's teenage daughter, as her would-be hipster father tries to end an argument with her by exclaiming "WTF!" and then cluelessly explains to her that it means "Why the face?"
If Ozzie and Harriet, the original sitcom mom and dad, might have some trouble recognizing themselves in any of this, surely Houlihan, the bullied boy-toy nurse of "M*A*S*H," will raise a clenched fist of solidarity with the hardbitten Iraq war veteran Veronica Callahan of "Mercy" (8 p.m., NBC).
Hot Lips, the nitwit butt of every joke of the male doctors who ruled her 1953 world, would burn with envy to join the TV Age of the Revenge of the Nurse. Like Edie Falco in Showtime's "Nurse Jackie" and Jada Pinkett Smith in TNT's "Hawthorne," Callahan (Taylor Schilling, "Dark Matter") spends most of her time mercilessly flaying the doctors while she cleans up — or buries — their mistakes.
Foul-mouthed (favorite epithet for doctors: "scrotum-head"), shell-shocked and secretly drug-addicted, Callahan (Taylor Schilling, "Dark Matter") has returned home to a troubled marriage and a frustrating job in an inner-city emergency room. If the doctors dismiss her as a bedpan-jockey, the other nurses regard her as a callous burnout. She's unapologetic. "You treat a 6-year-old Iraqi kid who got his arms blown off because he thought a bomb was a toy ... that's sad," she snarls at a tearful colleague in an oncology ward. "A 75-year-old man with cancer? That's a trip to Club Med."
Schilling's explosive performance as a woman on the edge makes "Mercy" well worth watching. But after a few minutes in front of ABC's bewildering sorcery drama "Eastwick" (10 p.m.), you may well wish that "Bewitched's" Samantha would twitch her nose and make the whole thing disappear.
The word "misogynistic" gets invoked way too easily these days, but if ever its use was warranted it was in connection with John Updike's 1984 novel "The Witches of Eastwick." Updike's book, which could well have replaced the "W" in the title with a "B," is an ugly counterfeminist tale of three bland suburban women who acquire magical powers when a new man (the devil?) appears in town, then use them to spitefully strike down a romantic rival with ovarian cancer. The book's patriarchal subtext — that women exist only in relation to men — is topped only by its portrayal of the lethal lengths to which the female characters go to avenge their petty jealousies.
Every attempt to bring Updike's novel to the screen (since Jack Nicholson's 1987 movie, "Eastwick" is the third — third! — try at a TV show) has tried to paper over its essential sexism with comedy, to no avail. "Eastwick" gives it another go, with Rebecca Romijn, Jamie Ray Newman ("General Hospital") and Lindsay Price ("Lipstick Jungle") as the witches "empowered" by their secret desires to be doormats, and Canadian TV veteran Paul Gross as their diabolical new boyfriend. The results suggest that those folks back in Salem were on the right track.