If the sitcom format were any more stagnant, it would breed mosquitoes. CBS' vaunted primetime schedule is populated by shows that look like holdovers from the 1970s...or 1950s; Everybody Loves Raymond, The King of Queens, and Yes, Dear are vestiges from the glory days of the family sitcom, Mom and Pop and The Kids and The In-Laws getting into trouble and cleaning up the mess in 22 minutes flat. Throw any one of those shows on Nick at Nite, and no one would be the wiser, which is how TV likes it: Keep it stupid, stupid. Even Fox's beloved Malcolm in the Middle smacks of pedestrian superciliousness beneath its "wry" veneer; never has so smart a show been so condescending toward its audience. It treats its viewers with contempt, as if to say: We'll explain every joke, so just sit back and relax, you morons.
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 Lifestars 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 Edto 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 Lifedoes 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 Groundedto 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 dadbehavior. 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 Geeksmoved 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 Lifelooks 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.