Fox's Grounded for Life, which debuted January 10, is, on the surface, all surface--just another show about a mother, a father, their three wacky kids, a mooching layabout brother, and a drill-sergeant grandfather who thinks he knows best. If there was any reason at all to be interested initially, it was because of the casting: Grounded for Life stars both the ubiquitous Donal Logue (The Patriot, The Tao of Steve, Runaway Bride, everything on Showtime at this very moment) and Kevin Corrigan, star of every independent film made since, oh, 1993. Logue even turned down a co-starring role in NBC's critical fave Ed to take the role of Grounded's Sean Finnerty, a 34-year-old dad to three children. Either Logue believed in the series, or he figured it was easier to make 20 TV shows a year than it was to make 20 films.
Fact is, Grounded for Life does prove how fine the line is that separates brilliant from banal. The premise only slightly varies from the sitcom standard (Sean and Claudia Finnerty, the latter played by Megyn Price, had their kids while still children themselves), and the writing is sharp enough to elicit laughs where other shows beg for groans. And the acting is top-notch, as it ought to be: Corrigan is the small-screen Christopher Walken, Logue and Price look like they still need their own parents, and Jake Burbage as son Henry is hysterical, never more so than when he utters the line, "Bite me, Indian." (Why? Find out yourself.)
But it's the telling of the tales that allows Grounded to transcend the mundane: In the pilot, Sean spies his 14-year-old daughter Lily (Lynsey Bartilson) making out with the kid next door; Sean freaks out, tossing a bucket of fried chicken at the tongue-locked twosome--typical dad behavior. But plot points become revelations: Lily doesn't like the boy at all; she only wants the attention the neighborhood boys lavish upon her "hot mom." It's almost shockingly touching when Lily tells Sean, "I'm scared of you and jealous of her"; TV hasn't had moments this authentic since Freaks and Geeks moved to cable. In the second episode, airing next week, the story begins at the end, with Corrigan lugging framed pictures of Danny Aiello and "the black guy from Miami Vice"; it takes almost the entirety of the episode to find out why. But watch it now: Grounded for Life looks and feels enough like CBS to sucker in the sitcom junkies looking for a fix, but they might flee when they realize the show's not at all interested in pandering. It's so good, it doesn't have to. It'll last a month.