Married to the Kellys

I jumped at the chance to review Married to the Kellys, thinking that it might reflect some of the ebullient good nature and bawdy Irish cheer I associate with anyone named Kelly. That was my first mistake. My second was actually watching ABC’s new sitcom, as lame as the lamest to appear during this underachieving season.

If you watch “family” sitcoms at all, you’re already familiar with the Kellys: quirky kinfolk whose weekly crises are tied up with a big laugh and a group hug. This show premises its humor on relocating an urbanite to the plains of Missouri, thus hitting on two clichés at once: it’s a fish-out-of-water story and a gentle poke at that old standby, the American Midwest.

In the 3 October pilot episode, first-time novelist (how is it that every writer on TV manages to sell his first book?) and native New Yorker Tom (Breckin Meyer) has reluctantly moved to Kansas City so that his gregarious wife Susan (Kiele Sanchez) can be closer to her large, close-knit family. Kansas City is the 29th largest city in the U.S., with a population of two million and a vibrant economy, so it is hardly “backwater.” But it may as well be the moon to only child Tom, who must not only overcome “culture shock,” but also the peculiarities of Susan’s family.

These members include her parents, Bill (Sam Anderson) and Sandy (Nancy Lenehan); her ultra-competitive sister Mary (Emily Rutherfurd, formerly of The Ellen Show, another dead sitcom about a city dweller returning to a Midwest home); Mary’s husband Chris (Josh Braaten); and Susan’s bug-collecting younger brother Lewis (Derek Waters). Together, they shuck corn, eat “pork steak on the grill,” play a seemingly endless parlor game called Taboo, and sing instead of say Grace — all foreign activities to Tom.

Despite (or because of) his anxieties, Married to the Kellys has a cozy feel, so heartwarming it makes According To Jim look like The Sopranos. This may be related to the fact that all the characters are based on and named after producer Tom Hertz, his wife, and in-laws: it’s hard to take aim at people you’re still living with. But such tepidness is also relentlessly unfunny: the jokes are as flat as 10 miles of Kansas highway. Take this exchange between Tom and Mary, for instance:

Mary: You did a good job of shucking that corn. If the writing career falls through, you can always become a farmer.

Tom: Yeah, then you can come over and milk my cows.

Witty. Later, we meet Uncle Dave (Richard Riehl), an obnoxious rightwing banker whose short-on-top-long-in-back hairdo looks suspiciously like a mullet. Uncle Dave invites family members to “kiss my ring,” offering his pinky finger like some Mafia don. When Lewis complains to Tom about the ring ritual, Tom whispers something in Lewis’ ear and we know what’s coming from a mile away. When Dave again offers Lewis the ring to kiss, Lewis looks at him and says, “Why don’t you kiss my ass.” Painfully shy, Lewis is immediately attracted to Tom’s seeming sophistication, and his retort to Dave signals his effort to be more like his brother-in-law. But this personality turn is labored, so out of character that I don’t believe it for a second.

By contrast, Mary (nicely played by Rutherfurd) is instantly established as the unwavering alpha female, frequently reminding everyone of her intelligence and the fact that she is writing her dissertation, which makes her “almost a professor.” Her assertiveness overwhelms her milquetoast husband Chris, but she’s threatened by Tom’s relatively “intellectual” demeanor. This translates to a shrillness that’s more than a little unpleasant. Her verbal battles with Tom gesture toward ideological and social differences between small-town dwellers and city slickers, but Tom is hardly a stereotypical New Yorker. He’s a little sarcastic and a touch selfish, but he’s as polite as any of the Kellys. And besides, there’s not much that’s particularly “Midwestern” about the Kellys or their environment (unless you count Tom and Susan’s painting of cows in a field). No one speaks in regional accents and though the men wear flannel shirts, no one could claim this as a “local” phenomenon anymore.

All this sameness is perhaps reflected in the show’s ratings, as lukewarm as the jokes. Still, ABC has ordered a full season’s worth of episodes. So it doesn’t look like we’ll be divorcing the Kellys any time soon. The show is part of the network’s revamped “TGIF” line-up, along with The George Lopez Show, Hope & Faith, and Life With Bonnie, but after sitting through Married To The Kellys, “TGIF” only had me thinking: “Thank God It’s Finished.”

I wish there were something I could recommend about this show, because its heart is certainly in the right place: it’s refreshing to see a TV family not at each other’s throats. Still, these folks aren’t anything like the Kellys I know and the prospect of a full season of Married to the Kellys has me toying with the idea of changing my name to Smith. Or Jones. Or Mud, as I attempt to distance myself as far as I can from this tedious TV clan.