Archive for Tuesday, September 26, 2006

What killed funny sitcoms?

September 26, 2006

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We all know the sitcom is an endangered species. But there's no reason to beat it to death. "Help Me Help You" (8:30 p.m., ABC) seems like the 400th show to exploit the notion that psychiatrists must be as crazy as their patients.

Ted Danson ("Cheers," "Becker") stars as therapist Dr. Bill Hoffman. He's brilliant and he lets everyone know it. The show revolves around the "wacky" patients in his encounter group and how their problems mirror his own woes, stemming from the disintegration of his 25-year marriage to Anne (Jane Kaczmarek, "Malcolm in the Middle").

For those keeping count, this is the second new sitcom this season (and there just aren't that many new sitcoms) to showcase a major character attempting suicide. On "The Class," a lovelorn 30-something downed a bottle of pills. (Cue the laugh track!) "Help" commences when office drone Dave (Charlie Finn) throws himself out a window.

Happily for Dave, his boss breaks his fall and Dave ends up in Dr. Hoffman's office with Jonathan (Jim Rash), a persnickety guy who denies that he's gay; Inger (Suzy Nakamura), a dot-com tycoon without social skills; Darlene (Darlene Hunt), a troubled soul given to falling in love with authority figures (like her therapist); and Michael (Jere Burns), a savage lawyer with anger problems.

Some of these "misfits" make the most of their roles, particularly Jonathan who goes to extreme lengths to hang out with the hunky guy at his coffee shop. In addition to suicide jokes, "Class" and "Help" share flamboyant characters who deny they are gay.

If possible, Danson's Dr. Hoffman is a bigger jerk than Danson's Dr. Becker. Hoffman's attempts to win back the love of his wife and daughter seem forced and obvious and, more than occasionally, creepy.

Maybe it takes failed comedy about therapy to make me want to put the whole new fall schedule on the couch. Many of the new dramas involving family dynamics ("Vanished," "Kidnapped," "Brothers & Sisters," "Smith" and "Runaway") center around buried secrets, conspiracies, lies and paranoia. All of the heroes on "Heroes" seem to be having a nervous breakdown. "Jericho" kicks off with nuclear catastrophe. One of the new sitcoms (among those not involving suicide) is called "'Til Death," and another (debuting next month), "Twenty Good Years," contemplates a wild ride into senility, infirmity and/or death. And isn't it fitting that "Studio 60," the best and most serious of the new dramas takes place on the set of a comedy? Albeit a comedy that isn't funny anymore.

¢ Notable DVD sets available today include "The Tomorrow Show: Tom Snyder's Electric Kool-Aid Talk Show," featuring interviews with Timothy Leary, Tom Wolfe, Ken Kesey and the Grateful Dead; "Soupy Sales: In Living Black & White"; "Daniel Boone, Seasons 1 and 2"; "Riptide, Season 1"; and a 10th anniversary edition of the miniseries "Pride and Prejudice," starring Colin Firth.

Other highlights

¢ A troubled boy screams for no apparent reason on "House" (7 p.m., Fox).

¢ Lorelai wakes up with more than a caffeine buzz on the seventh season premiere of "Gilmore Girls" (7 p.m., CW).

¢ "Nova" (7 p.m., PBS) looks at the possibility of a massive volcano capable of destroying North America.

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