Living with Fran

Fran Drescher may have changed networks and grown older, but she’s still the same diva from Queens, gesticulating and wisecracking to the rafters, when she isn’t stealing obvious glances at the teleprompter. In Living with Fran, premiering 8 April, she’s still playing Nanny Fine. That’s too bad for the WB, because what the Frog wants is another Reba-size hit, not a new attempt at The Nanny.

Living with Fran does try to follow the Reba blueprint, casting Drescher as another recent divorcee forced to start over midlife. (In a grasp at the past, Nanny costar Charles Shaughnessy is slated to guest as Fran’s ex-husband.) But the similarities end there. While Reba, title notwithstanding, is an ensemble comedy, Fran pins its focus on its star. Yes, she has four supporting cast members under her roof, including new beau Riley (Ryan McPartlin), a studly 20something contractor (think Ty Pennington without the smarm or the leathery skin) nearly the same age as her son, but they’re just on hand to orbit the series’ star.

Fran and Riley are an established couple as the pilot opens, and it’s not until the second episode that we see how their romance began. That flashback, rooted in surprise (Fran’s at being asked out by Riley) and connection (Drescher reacts to him, rather than mugging for the camera) is modestly appealing. Unfortunately, the series doesn’t offer many similar moments. Rather than focusing on the couple’s feelings for each other, Fran seems determined to rely for story on others’ shock and disapproval, letting tired jokes dictate the story while its star whines her way toward obvious laughs.

First to object is Josh (Ben Feldman), Fran’s neurotic son. He returns home with bad news (he’s been kicked out of medical school), only to find tall, blond Riley cozied up to his mom and embraced by his 15-year-old sister Allison (Misti Traya). It gets worse: Josh’s room has been turned into a gym, and struggling musician Duane (Branden Williams), whom Fran met at Ozzfest, is living in the adjacent bathroom (two episodes in, the logic behind Duane is still unclear). “You’re only here because my mother is having a midlife crisis,” Josh tells Riley during one of several hissyfits. “If she was a guy, you would be a Porsche.”

Josh is too young and self-absorbed to adapt, which merely proves he’s his mother’s son. Fran is too happy in her new life to consider his feelings. I’m happy, be happy for me and be nice to Riley, or go to your room… er — gym, she more or less tells him. (Even Riley expresses more sympathy.) Is this because Josh took his dad’s side in the divorce, or because Fran’s life is me-me-me? The series doesn’t traffic in nuance, so the latter seems the safer bet.

In Episode Two, the potential in-laws (John Schneider and Marilu Henner) come to visit, and it’s Riley’s mother’s turn to react badly (and Fran’s to wonder why her lover hasn’t told his family about his May-December romance). Her snide remarks about Fran’s age escalate, eventually forcing a brief chink in the pair’s armor when a flustered Riley says he loves Fran in spite of her advanced years. Just in time, a tired sitcom setup appears to put an end to their almost-real conversation: Riley learns the bloody way that defending himself and slicing rib roast don’t mix, causing the whole group to rush off to the hospital.

Fran goes to great lengths to remind us that its mismatched lovers are hot for each other and on the same page (reportedly, off screen, the pair finish each other’s sentences). Problem is, Fran’s so grating and Riley’s so bland that their pairing — titillating generation gap aside — holds no interest. In this age of In Touch and Ashton and Demi, Living With Fran manages the near impossible: it turns 24-karat tabloid fodder into groans and yawns.