Asking a TV critic to review "Family Man" is like asking a food critic to give a considered opinion on Jell-O.
It has no discernible taste, either good or bad. It is neither offensive nor inoffensive. It is just there, sitting on the schedule. It wiggles a little bit when you touch it with your spoon.
Like Jell-O, "Family Man" is the type of show that can be the staple of pleasant childhood memories yet still be without any apparent nutritional content.
This new CBS sitcom, which debuts tonight at 8:30 on Channel 11 (WBAL) before moving to Saturdays at that time, is the product of the last formula factory still cranking out prime-time shows in this era of innovation and experimentation.
It's the Miller-Milkis crew that honed their skills on "Happy Days" and its family of shows before moving on. Now, they have a two-hour block on ABC every Friday with "Full House," "Family Matters," "Perfect Strangers" and the new "Going Places," and an hour on CBS on Saturdays with "The Hogan Family" and this show.
"Family Man" is "My Three Sons" plus a daughter. Gregory Harrison stars as Jack Taylor, a fire fighter (who can somehow afford what must be a $500,000 home in Los Angeles) trying to raise his three boys and daughter after the death of his wife in an automobile accident.
Her father, Joe, is around to help out for the summer, but he plans to return to his native New York. That's only if the character doesn't test well with preview audiences. The sweat picked up by those galvanic skin response electrodes must have been of the right composition because -- surprise, surprise -- Al Molinaro's Joe decides that he loves him family more than New York, so he'll stay and lend a hand.
It doesn't seem right to be so cynical about a show that, like that bowl of Jell-O, clearly means no harm, but the pilot of "Family Man" doesn't really have a plot so much as a series of incidents that appear shrewdly designed to elicit the appropriate warm, fuzzy emotional response. And it's easy to be cynical about such an approach to a TV series.
For instance, part of tonight's half hour deals with the youngest son Brian's inability to come to terms with his mother's death. If properly done, this would have been the subject of an entire episode that delved into this complex and turbulent problem. Instead, there are a couple of unexplained acting-out misbehaviors by the boy, a heart-to-heart with Dad about the topic, and a runaway incident that ends with a shared tearful hug over Mom's grave. The touching emotional button pushed, now it's time to move on to something else.
Like maybe a bit featuring Molinaro's loveable but fumbling grandpa who looks up with those big sad eyes after flubbing something else around this busy house. Or, for those moments that are guaranteed to make all the test meters move toward the feel-good side, the cuter-than-cute daughter Allison, played by Ashleigh Blair Sterling, walking into the scene and saying something cute.
All right, so maybe "My Three Sons" with its hard-working Dad trying to raise three boys with the help of the loveable-but-gruff grandpa does provide plenty of warm, fuzzy memories for baby boomers. Times have changed. Even in the suburbs, they buy something besides white bread. You almost hope kids these days would rather have Homer Simpson for a Dad than Jack Taylor. At least their house wouldn't be so boring.
* A recently widowed fire fighter tries to be Super Dad as he raises his three sons and daughter with the help of his father-in-law.
CAST: Gregory Harrison, Al Molinaro
TIME: Tonight at 8:30, then Saturdays at 8:30
CHANNEL: CBS Channel 11 (WBAL)