The empty nest revisited and refilled

September 09, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

"The Boys Are Back," the CBS sitcom that premieres at 8 p.m. Sunday on WBAL (Channel 11), should be on the Nostalgia Channel. Or maybe the History Channel, or the Way Back When Channel.

It seems to care not a whit for demographics -- the watchword of TV programming in the 1980s and '90s.

It is cleverly written, however, and will probably make you laugh during the half hour. It will also likely wind up in Nielsen's Top 10 or 20 next week, thanks to its showcase after "60 Minutes," before settling into its Wednesday night slot.

Starring Suzanne Pleshette and Hal Linden, the series wants us to see the world through the fifty-or-sixtysomething eyes of its main characters, Jackie and Fred Hansen, a couple of grandparents trading one-liners with a feverish intensity. It's a view that sees shellacking the family boat as a great pastime and eating red meat as a bygone pleasure.

In the pilot opening, Fred and Jackie are waving their last son off to college at the back door when another son knocks at the front. This son, married with two kids, has just lost his job. They need to live with grandpa and grandma.

This is where the problem with the show's tone begins. Even in a sitcom, there should be some sense of seriousness or concern at this family's becoming homeless. Instead, all we get are fast and furious one-liners. The result is very brittle -- so brittle that it makes "Murphy Brown" seem downright heartfelt.

When the unemployed son tells his parents about losing his job )) and missing payments on his mortgage, Fred asks, "Have you tried the shelters?"

Fred's line gets big laughs on the laugh track.

"They look very clean on TV," he adds. More guffaws.

One of the grandkids hasn't finished throwing up in the swimming pool, when a second son arrives on the scene, also wanting to move back in. This son's a cop, whose wife kicked him out. When he tells his parents he's an alcoholic, they nod their heads and say they knew.

"So, what's new?" they ask. The scene is played strictly for laughs. Ha-ha, kid No. 2 is an alcoholic. Is that a knee-slapper, or what?

The comedy is supposed to spring from Fred's exasperation. Just as he and Jackie thought their lives were going to be less noisy, less complicated, less expensive, less everything, the empty nest suddenly gets very crowded again. But most of the jokes in the pilot are at the expense of the sons and what knuckleheaded losers they are.

That pro-senior point-of-view may be the most interesting thing about the series. It certainly separates it from most of what's on ABC, NBC and Fox this year.

In the prime-time world where youth is almost always served, there is certainly room for a sitcom that speaks to those in what the vitamin ads call their "silver years." I just wish it were one that didn't have a canned laugh track where its heart was supposed to be.

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