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A new generation of family ties

by Ashley Kemper
ArtsPost staff writer

'Parenthood' photo provided by NBC.

There’s something to be said for sticking with your gut when you’ve got a winning formula on your hands. There’s something completely different to be said for stabbing your competition in the gut, stealing his winning formula and running for the hills.

If this spring’s new family drama “Parenthood” (NBC Tuesdays at 10/9c) feels altogether familiar in more than one way, that’s because, well, it is. Inspired directly by Ron Howard’s 1989 movie, “Parenthood” has also drawn heavy comparisons to ABC’s Sunday primetime standby “Brothers and Sisters,” now in it’s fourth season. While the Walker family of California notoriety looks to a sassy Sally Field for its dose of unwanted motherly influence, the new “Parent” on the block is a bull-headed but well-meaning patriarch played by the Coach himself, Craig T. Nelson.

The endearing combination of family togetherness and sibling rivalry that has earned “Brothers” seven Emmy nominations, including one “Best Actress” win for Field, seems to be missing from the new drama, which focuses more on the second generation children than their thirty-something parents. Lauren Graham makes a sudden return to the small screen as Sarah after Maura Tierney, who was originally cast in the slot, pulled herself out of the show to battle breast cancer. Tierney’s unexpected diagnosis caused network execs to pull the show from their fall lineup and re-shoot several episodes with Graham (who enjoyed much better writers in her “Gilmore Girls” days) stepping in place.

Now nine episodes into their opening run, “Parenthood” has already dragged the viewers along through the discovery of a new son, grown daughter Sarah (Graham) moving back in with her parents and fistfuls of teenage angst as three grandchildren enter the high school ring. Often the only saving grace in this show appears in the form of Max (Max Burkholder), one of the youngest members of the Braverman clan who is diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome in the show’s pilot. Despite the embarrassment of this older sister Haddie (Sarah Ramos) and the chagrin of his parents Adam (Peter Krause) and Kristina (Monica Potter), Max wants nothing more than to wear his pirate costume to school every day and play baseball with his cousin Drew (Miles Heizer) at night. Max’s socially inept nature makes him so refreshingly unaware of his own eccentricities that the rest of his family comes off as flat and guarded.

Another point of frustration in this parenting nightmare is the fact that it’s impossible to keep the relationships straight. While the siblings on  “Brothers and Sisters” have an established rapport with one another that distinguishes them from their spouses, viewers of “Parenthood” need a certified road map to recall whether in fact it’s Adam or Kristina who is related to the clan as well as which interchangeable child belongs to which branch of the family tree.

For all its positive attributes, however, “Brothers and Sisters” still has not reclaimed the holding power it enjoyed three seasons ago. Calista Flockhart, Rachel Griffiths, Matthew Rhys and Dave Annable still bring a believable and enjoyable presence to the show each week as four of the Walker siblings. Though they fight like cats and dogs for forty-five minutes at a time, the family invariably ends up sitting around their mother’s dining room table at the end of the night, sharing a glass of wine from the family vineyard to toast averting another crisis. The first season or two of this robust drama provided the plot twists of a telenovela but delivered them in a polished, witty and (generally) logical way. The latest episodes, however, have shown us a magical cure for cancer, a green card that arrives just in the nick of time and job offer for Senator McCallister (Rob Lowe) just vague enough for writers to give Lowe an easy exit when plans for him to join the cast of “Parks and Recreation” become final.

If all of this heavy drama is weighing viewers down, have no fear: at least there’s one “Modern Family” (ABC, Wednesdays 9/8c) in town. Or, as the show’s tagline says, “one big (straight, gay, multi-cultural, traditional) happy family.” Perhaps hoping to spice up its midweek lineup, ABC has essentially taken “Brothers and Sisters” and broken it down to a snappier, spicier, showier version. Instead of an aloof, gay, lawyer for a brother, we have Cam (Eric Stonestreet), who makes Liberace’s costume designer look reserved. Instead of an upstanding senator for a brother-in-law, we have Phil (Ty Burrell), who has the emotional maturity of a twelve-year-old and recently spent the entire half-hour slot playing with his trendy new iPad.

Standing at the head of this comedy of errors is retiree Jay (Ed O’Neill) who recently married trophy wife Gloria (Sofía Vergara) and took on her chipmunk-cheeked, preteen son as his second shot at being a father.

The thing that makes “Modern Family” a show worth returning to next week is not the star power of O’Neill as was originally anticipated, but the continually surprising and genuinely funny performances of supporting cast members. In a move that’s got even “Glee” starlets thinking twice about pre-written acceptance speeches, the entire cast of “Modern Family” (including O’Neill) has just announced their plans to enter the Emmy race in supporting categories.

The truly ensemble spirit of the show shines through in a way that makes even the most degenerate cousin consider attending his family reunion after all.

Leno’s inauspicious return to late-night

By Jeremy Walsh

ArtsPost staff writer

Comedian Jay Leno made an inauspicious return last week as host of “The Tonight Show” with a forgetful series of first three episodes, leaving NBC’s decision to switch back to Leno from Conan O’Brien look more and more unnecessary.

“The Tonight Show” had been off the air since O’Brien hosted his last show Jan. 22.  With all of the momentum NBC gained during the Winter Olympics, audiences deserved a strong return to late-night from Leno.  Instead, audiences were reminded why Leno left in the first place, and why his prime-time comedy hour failed:  Jay Leno is no longer relevant as a comedian and talk show host.

The first three episodes seemed to be aimed at making a seamless transition from O’Brien to Leno by featuring generic celebrity guests and performance while weaving in three Olympic gold medal winners, trying to keep some focus on NBC’s successful Olympics run and off of the well-publicized, unseemly context behind Leno’s return.

Leno’s first show back, airing on March 1, treated audiences to few memorable moments.  The episode opened with a mildly entertaining, though unoriginal, satire of “The Wizard of Oz,” with Leno in the Dorothy role, awaking after a strange dream.  But as audiences well know, Leno’s nine-month hiatus from “The Tonight Show,” including his experiment with prime-time, was no dream.

The opening monologue, performed on essentially the same set as his prime-time show, seemed awkward as Leno carefully avoided any serious comment about his transition back to NBC’s late-night, which would have been classy and could have eased viewers’ tensions about the unsavory host switch.

Leno relied primarily on Olympics jokes to get him through the monologue, and most of his jokes received what sounded like forced or obligatory laughs from his studio audience.  One memorable zinger from the opening monologue came when Leno said that actor Keanu Reeves had agreed to appear in a new sequel in the “Speed” film series, and like its predecessors, the new film would center on an out-of-control vehicle, this time a Toyota.

Jamie Foxx was Leno’s first guest, and who better to usher in Leno’s return than an outspoken ego-maniac whose only goal is to make sure the camera remains on him.  Upon his arrival, Foxx incited the audience to shout the host’s name and cracked open a bottle of champagne, spraying it in the crowd’s direction.  At one point, Foxx ran around onstage so uncontrollably that he knocked Leno’s cup of coffee onto the ground.

That being said, maybe Foxx was a perfect choice for first guest because he allowed the home viewers little time to focus on Leno.

American gold-medalist Lindsey Vonn followed as Leno’s next guest, easing the awkward feeling of Foxx’s overly exuberant appearance.  Still the banter between Leno and Vonn was far from funny.  Country music singer Brad Paisley ended the show with a lively performance of his hit single “American Saturday Night.”

All in all, Leno’s first show back seemed to fail for two reasons:  It was excruciatingly unfunny, and it did not ease the awkwardness of his transition back as host.

Night 2 had a similar feel, featuring more downs than ups.  Leno gave another forgettable monologue, but made a successful return to his classic “Headlines” bit in the second segment, taking advantage of hilarious misprints in the nation’s newspapers.

Former Governor of Alaska, and current Fox News correspondent Sarah Palin graced the stage as Leno’s first guest.  Their banter seemed forced and lacked any humor; Leno did not go at Palin for any memorable zingers like a younger, less polite (and frankly, more funny) Leno would have done.

Toward the end of her interview, Palin entertained viewers with a surprisingly funny, fake monologue, practicing the kind of material she might do if Fox gave her a talk show.  The best critique of the Leno’s second night could be that Palin’s mock monologue was much funnier than Leno’s actual opening monologue.

The show featured another American gold-medalist, snowboarder Shaun White.  Again, this appearance saw generally dull banter.  Recent “American Idol” winner Adam Lambert finished the evening with a poor performance of his new song “Sleepwalker,” emphasized by its unoriginal, pseudo-’80s sound.

The final episode in the trio of post-Olympics shows aired on March 3 and continued the trends of lackluster comedy and awkward interviews.  The highlight of this show occurred during a mock trivia game hosted by Leno and featuring six stars of the reality show “Jersey Shore.”

The laughs came easily while watching these real people show off their lack of cultural knowledge by answering basic questions incorrectly.  Perhaps the funniest moment came when Leno asked the panel who becomes President of the United States if the president and vice-president die.  Giving a response someone would be hard-pressed to make up, one of the guests answered somewhat confidently that the person who lost the election would be the new president.

One of the more awkward interviews occurred between Leno and his first guest, comedian and author Chelsea Handler.

At the end of her spot, Leno whisked Handler out of the studio and onto a helicopter (in broad daylight, reminding viewers that the show is taped during the day).  The two flew over the Universal lot in Los Angeles to view a huge copy of the cover of Handler’s newest book, which Leno had made.  The moment seemed pointless because neither comedian really attempted any jokes during the uncomfortable flight.

Olympic speed skater Apolo Ohno appeared next in-studio, where the two discussed Ohno’s Olympic career and analyzed video clips of Ohno’s races only days earlier in Vancouver.  Some of Ohno’s insights were intriguing, but the interview lacked the humor necessary to carry a late-night comedy hour.

Singer Avril Lavigne ended the show by performing her new single “Alice,” a song she contributed to the soundtrack of the new “Alice in Wonderland” film.   Though the final guests of the three episodes were well-known music artists, the show would have benefited from booking at least one stand-up comedian to perform in that spot, helping to close one of the nights with much-needed laughter.

In the end, Leno’s return to late night left much to be desired.  He seems to have lost touch with the brand of comedy that made his first stint on “The Tonight Show” so memorable and successful.  It appears that the uninspired Leno America saw in prime-time is here to stay.