Out of Practice

Out of Practice is dripping with talent. Stars Stockard Channing, Henry Winkler, Jennifer Tilley, and Christopher Gorham, and writers Joe Keenan and Christopher Lloyd have between them 19 Emmys (and 26 nominations), two Golden Globes, two Oscar nominations, and 56 other nominations or wins for various entertainment awards. It’s not unreasonable to expect this group will put together a sharp, fresh comedy.

Then again, history has shown that great talent doesn’t guarantee good television. In recent seasons, networks — hiring impressive and not-so-impressive artists — have failed to generate the “next great sitcom.” This means any show that even looks promising becomes a beacon for discerning viewers. This is the case again, with Out of Practice.

Though CBS’ publicity push has underlined repeatedly the participation of Channing and Winkler, they’re not the show’s focus. Gorham is. His character, Ben, is the stereotypical “black sheep.” The only member of his family who is not a “real doctor,” he’s merely a psychologist, whereas his parents and siblings are MDs. He’s also the only one who appears reasonable, which leaves him looking alienated amid a pack of crass, self-indulged individuals. Consequently, Ben is not the sort of protagonist who usually fronts a “great sitcom.”

This is not to suggest that his relatives have banded together to exclude Ben. There is no unity in the Barnes family. Parents Stewart (Winkler) and Lydia (Channing) are bitterly divorced, and his brother Oliver (Ty Burrell) and sister Regina (Paula Marshall) would do just about anything to avoid spending an evening with them. Many of the jokes stem from the antagonism among the Barnes. The pilot episode offered only one moment when anyone appeared relaxed, and those characters, a loving elderly couple Ben spotted in a restaurant, are extras.

The Barnes are not completely heartless, however. When Ben’s never-seen wife Naomi called during the pilot, after he left the room, the family overheard her message that she was leaving him. Their immediate instinct was to protect and comfort Ben, but that concern quickly turned into ridicule of Naomi. Unaware of the call, Ben assumed the family was amusing themselves at his wife’s expense and stormed off angrily. This series of events accomplished two things: it created a state of turmoil for the sole stable character, especially once he learned about Naomi’s call, and second, it resulted in even more tension.

That this tension derives from Keenan and Lloyd’s usual tricks, like the overheard phone call and the misunderstood conversation, only makes a comparison to Frasier more likely. Out of Practice also features judgmental and insecure characters, but less “balance” between opponents. Ben is up against everyone else, and his potential effectiveness as a peacemaker is damaged by his impeding separation. One might want Ben to succeed, but he never will.

Frasier had one other advantage over Out of Practice. Frasier Crane was a known commodity when the show started, and even carried over some sympathy from his Cheers days. No one knows the Barnes, and so they only look mean and superficial. Lydia’s only concern when she learns her ex is dating his receptionist (Tilly) is that hospital workers will assume he left Lydia for a younger woman, not that she had left him because he was an inferior doctor who was holding her back professionally. Her feelings stem not from a sense that she’s been slighted for a young babe, but from the fact that she has lost a round of one-upmanship with her ex, a loss that is public to boot. Lydia, like the rest of her family, doesn’t care who does what, as long as it makes her look superior.

Fortunately, Gorham possesses a natural charm. Two years ago, I reviewed his Jake 2.0 and maintained he would find a more suitable role once that show was cancelled (which it quickly was). Following another short-lived mistake last season (anyone remember Medical Investigation?), Gorham has found that role in Ben.

Like Gorham, Channing and Winkler punched a few laughs into their dialogue; however, their scenes together are the weakest of the pilot, as their nonverbal communication conveys none of the hostility of the dialogue. It is hard to imagine they were ever married or raised three children together, or even have a sustained history of mutual animosity. They’re both most effective when interacting with one of the younger stars, problematic for a series premised on the parents’ conflict. All other dysfunction flows from them. If their tension is not believable, then it is hard to buy into the disdain Regina and Oliver have for their parents.

While writing this review, I was interrupted by a phone call from my parents. When my father found out what I was doing, he said that he had seen Out of Practice and thought it was “silly.” That’s not high praise from Dad, as it means a show has a few amusing moments but generally failed to hold his interest. Had Keenan and Lloyd devoted more time to providing their characters with depth and less to flinging insults, viewers might have developed empathy for them and better understood why they feel such aggression toward one another. And Dad and I might be more inclined to tune in for Episode Two.