Happy Family

NBC seems to be in a comedic slump these days. In the past few seasons, the venerable network that brought us “Must-See TV” has failed to deliver reliable, buzz-worthy comedies and has had to watch helplessly as ABC became home to TV’s more popular sitcoms. Friends and Will & Grace still rack up big ratings for NBC, but does anyone actually watch Good Morning, Miami? Or Scrubs? In a few short seasons NBC has gone from “Must-See TV” to “Might-See-If-There’s-Nothing-On-CBS TV.” With Friends in its final season and Frasier on its last legs, NBC seems to be throwing in the comedy towel in favor of gritty dramas and is premiering only three new sitcoms for the coming season.

Happy Family, yet another sitcom that pits TV Baby Boomers against their Gen-X children, is one of these new NBC laugh-fests. But don’t let the cheery title fool you as this series should more aptly be called Miserable Dysfunctional Family. Unlike the squeaky clean clans of shows like Yes, Dear and According to Jim, Happy Family is anything but.

John Larroquette and Christine Baranski star as Peter and Annie Brennan, two upscale suburban parents who can’t wait to have the kids gone and the house to themselves. The show’s pilot presents a loving couple, devoted to themselves and their children. Peter is a retired dentist and Annie is the type of TV wife who never seems to do much other than tastefully decorate their sprawling home.

But on the day their youngest son, 20-year-old Tim (Tyler Francavilla), is set to graduate from junior college they learn not only has he flunked out but is sleeping with the 30-something divorcée next door, Annie’s best friend Maggie (Susan Gibney). When they seek the advice of their oldest son, the engaged dentist Todd (Jeff Davis), they find him in the arms of a woman who is not his fiancé. Rounding out the family is their lonely, overachieving daughter Sara (Melanie Paxson), who arrives for a Friday night game of Scrabble with her parents dressed in an evening gown and whose only non-family companionship is a parrot she calls Eric. It’s no wonder Annie and Peter want these three pathetic louts far, far away.

With all of this sitcom-ish dysfunction going on hilarity almost ensues, but the writing (by series creators David Guarascio and Moses Port) lacks the kind of stinging one-liners needed for a show that ostensibly wants be a comic look at the dark underside of the traditional American family. The premiere episode relies too much on overdone sitcom situation (the parents running into Tim at Maggie’s house dressed only in his tightie-whities) and on the three adult kids, who prove that the only thing more annoying on TV than children are adults who act like children.

The character of Tim is particular irritating as he does little other than sponge off his parents and hang around the house playing air guitar. “I’m 20 years old now,” he tells Annie and Peter. “And in some ways I’m an adult.” But there’s nothing in his behavior to suggest he’s anything more than a big kid, and as such is never held accountable for anything in his life, allowing his parents to shoulder the burden of guilt for his stupid and selfish actions. The typical TV manchild is usually seen as kooky and endearing (think Sean Hayes’ Jack on Will & Grace), but Tim seems so emotional repressed that I expected a scene of him having his diaper changed.

Eldest kid Todd is the apple of his father’s eye, the gifted son worthy of praise. Even though Todd turns out to be a conniving rat, Peter spends a good deal of time gushing about Todd’s charm and intelligence. But if Todd were so smart, why didn’t he look through the peephole to see who was knocking before letting his parents barge in to catch him alone with his mistress? The characters of the three Brennan kids are so badly drawn, so unbelievably self-centered, that we can barely relate to them and their boorish behavior.

Happy Family is nearly saved by the performances of Emmy winners Larroquette and Baranski, who bring to their roles a real sense of regret, frustration, and humor. Larroquette’s slow burn reactions to the ridiculous events of the day are a hoot and he gets all of the best lines. “You’d think, for once by accident, you’d succeed,” he says to the underachieving Tim. It’s a credit to the show’s two stars that they can make real characters out of sitcom clichés. Try as they might, though, these pros can’t quite elevate the show’s preposterous situations and stilted dialogue beyond standard sitcom fare.

Creators and producers Guarascio and Port are NBC sitcom veterans, having worked as writers and story editors for Mad About You and executive producers for the last two seasons of Just Shoot Me. Much like the latter show, Happy Family favors lame one-liners and goofy sight gags in place of compelling stories and strong writing. In the pilot, the show’s writers apparently thought Tim being caught in his underwear by his parents was so funny that they restage the scene verbatim near the show’s conclusion. Predictably, neither seen is very funny.

Despite its creative shortcomings, some credit must be given to Happy Family. Its bleak view of the family unit and its strong undertones of parental disillusionment are refreshing at a time when sitcoms have gone warm and fuzzy. Like Everybody Loves Raymond, the show never pummels the concept of the family institution, it just slaps it around a bit. It makes no apologies for it’s seriously screwy family and, to its credit, doesn’t attempt to polish the rough edges with phony sentimentality. Peter and Annie still love their kids, despite their many screw-ups. But the show seems to say that love, particularly the kind between parents and their kids, sometimes comes with a heavy price.

The lesson of the show is that parenting never ends, even when the kids have flown the coop. “They’re never really out of the house, are they?” Peter sighs at the show’s conclusion as a look of sad resignation falls over his face. The real theme of the show seems to be disappointment. Annie and Peter are dissatisfied not just with the failure of their kids to lead responsible adult lives, but also in their perceived inability to raise “normal” children. “I’m beginning to think we didn’t do a very good job,” Annie says as she and Peter stare numbly into space at the end of the show’s debut. The Brennans, like so many parents, find their lives defined by those of their children.

Happy Family reminded me of Butterflies, a classic British sitcom from the mid-’80s that also featured a dentist and his cheerful wife whose two adult sons were shiftless losers and a constant source of disappointment, particularly for the father. The show deftly exposed the dark side of family life with humor and intelligence, two traits that Happy Family would be wise to adopt if it’s to survive its paper-thin concept.