Life With Bonnie

You would be hard pressed to find a sitcom debuting this season with more people rooting for it than Life With Bonnie. Smart, funny, engaging, and sexy, Hunt’s comic profile was elevated after a string of appearances on longtime pal and booster David Letterman’s show. Her considerable talents (acting, writing, and directing) coupled with Letterman’s clout led to her establishing a toehold on the sitcom landscape. And, by all rights, the story should end here, with me chronicling her immense popularity as she begins her latest creative venture.

The reality is Life With Bonnie is Hunt’s third shot at a sitcom. First came 1993’s blink-and-you-missed-it The Building, a “wacky neighbors” premise that, even with Letterman’s imprimatur as executive producer, lasted only 5 episodes. Two years later, The Bonnie Hunt Show faired only slightly better; 13 episodes were produced, 11 aired. After its cancellation, Hunt appeared to be done with the small screen and intent on frying bigger fish. She played Robin Williams’s love interest in Jumanji, then wrote, directed, and acted in the David Duchovny-Minnie Driver romantic comedy, Return to Me. Now, after starring in Stolen Summer (also known as the Project Greenlight movie), and with her next feature film writing-and-directing effort, Anniversary in pre-production, Hunt returns, somewhat surprisingly, to the small screen, as writer, star, director, and co-producer of sitcom number three.

Hunt plays Bonnie Molloy, host of Morning Chicago, an amiable little chat show that comes off as a cross between >The Rosie O’Donnell Show and Live with Regis and Kelly (without Regis). Husband Mark (darkly handsome Mark Derwin, most recently seen as Dr. Ben Davidson on the ABC soap One Life To Live) is a doctor; they have three young children and a live-in housekeeper (Marianne Muellerleile in a performance combining Shirley Booth’s Hazel with Marla Gibbs’s Florence). And instead of wacky neighbors, they have wacky co-workers, most notably the appropriately surnamed David Bellows (David Alan Grier who, thankfully, is used judiciously) as her frantic, put-upon producer.

The premiere episode rocketed by so fast that I was left wondering if (and how) Hunt will keep up this sprinter’s pace in upcoming episodes. The pre-credits sequence effectively establishes the daily chaos that is the Molloy household — a blur of physical activity complemented by rapid-fire (almost overlapping) dialogue that ends with smiles and all participants on their way (just a bit late). While hardly the most original of expository devices, it allows Hunt and Derwin to get off some sharp wisecracks.

While meant to represent love and togetherness writ large, the family scene, though ingratiating, were ultimately a little too familiar and slightly bland. Fortunately, for all of the show’s implied “family values” rhetoric, it never turns into self-congratulatory sentimentality (the closing scene where an exhausted Bonnie and Mark fall asleep snuggling with son Charlie was, for those of us with busy lives and young children, touchingly familiar). And as sitcom kids, Charlie (Charlie Stewart) and Samantha (Samantha Browne-Walters) — child number three is an infant who contributes the occasional cry — have not been asked to act like snarky smartasses, but rather family members negotiating the daily madness and unpredictability of the Molloy household.

But if the family scenes suffer from sitcom conventionalism, it’s during the Morning Chicago segments that viewers get a glimpse of how good this show might be. Here Hunt craftily morphs from harried mom into cheerful host, a persona that is pure invention, and only slightly dissimilar from Bonnie Molloy the mom. From the first note of the show-within-the-show’s theme, she acts unflappably “host-like” (i.e., cheerful even after misapplying her lipstick), turning it on and off every time the fictional program goes to break. It is subtle shading, cleverly nuanced in a manner that (due to these scenes being partly improvised) takes full advantage of Hunt’s deft comedic acting skills.

It is while Bonnie inhabits her host persona that Life With Bonnie generates sparks. After assuring the terminally frantic Bellows that she can bluff her way through an interview with an author whose book she hasn’t read, Bonnie effusively praises her guest’s tome, only to have the author tell her how refreshing it is to hear such kind words, since most book critics have labeled her “an ugly, filthy racist.” Funnier still is a parody (that plays like an homage to Lucille Ball) of morning TV’s obligatory cooking show segments, in which Bonnie happily mediates between two bickering Italian chefs (one cooks, the other acts disinterested and drinks wine). Ever the professional, Bonnie imbibes as she tries to offset the sniping with hilariously illogical quips (“Do you normally cook in leather, or is that an Italian thing?”). Barely able to keep the peace, she finally starts slugging the wine straight from the bottle. She’s soon a little buzzed, and as the segment collapses into chaos, she starts acting flirty and sexy.

That’s right, sexy. Hunt would be best served if she could play Bonnie not as a middle-aged mom whining about not being a size six anymore, but as a middle-aged mom who still exudes sexual confidence. She slyly smiles during the cooking segment, rolls her eyes curls the corner of her mouth after a well-timed joke: that’s must-see TV. Such a characterization would also give Hunt the opportunity to play against expectations that Bonnie Molloy, in order to be funny, needs to be a prisoner of her imperfect middle-aged body. A confidently sexy Bonnie Molloy might then do away with gags involving stretching sweaters to cover widening hips, or feeling intimidated by her husband’s impossibly thin and artificially glamorous female colleagues.

As for the future of Life with Bonnie, I have mixed feelings about it. It’s off to a good start, but younger audiences might find Hunt’s non-confrontational, middle-class, work and family-centered humor too inoffensively old school. The best hope for the show’s success is with its presumed target audience — 30- to 40something parents — assuming they haven’t already pledged allegiance to “edgier” offerings like Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. Given how quickly the networks euthanise shows that, as they say, “aren’t performing up to expectations,” it’s conceivable that Life With Bonnie could go the way of The Building. And while her big screen fortunes await, life on the small screen would be enhanced by someone as smart and funny as Bonnie Hunt.