With the sitcom looking more and more like an exhausted genre, originality might be far too much to hope for. Perhaps a good imitation, or parody of a classic sitcom, is as good as it's going to get.
By that downsized standard, "My Wife and Kids" - a new ABC series about an African-American, upper-middle-class family in Stamford, Conn. - is the pick of the midseason sitcom litter. The series desperately wants to be "The Cosby Show," the hit NBC sitcom of the 1980s. "My Wife" isn't as smart, socially conscious or ultimately even as funny as "The Cosby Show," but that's life in these post-postmodern television times. It's close enough to warrant praise instead of condemnation.
Dad in the series is Michael Kyle, played by co-creator and executive producer Damon Wayans ("In Living Color"). Kyle is a former UPS driver who followed his dream of running his own delivery service. Now, he owns a company so successful that he can apparently can stick around the house all day getting upset about every little disruption in the domestic routine - just like Dr. Cliff Huxtable, who had a medical practice in his home.
Mom, who is played by Tisha Campbell-Martin ("Martin"), wants to take a job as a stock broker and not be around the house to get upset about every little domestic disruption involving dad and the three kids: Junior (George O. Gore II), their teen-age son; Claire (Jazz Raycole), the adolescent daughter; and Kady (Parker McKenna Posey), their 5-year old. The Kyle household also includes Rosa Lopez (Marlene Forte), a Latina nanny who loves Kady and hates dad.
Poor dad. Tonight's pilot features a serious conflict with mom seeking full-time employment in the financial world, and dad fighting it all the way to the office of an officious marriage counselor (Wendell Pierce), who seems to like him almost as much as the nanny does. By next week, the serious-conflict category is down to Junior beating dad in backyard basketball and Claire worrying about the size of her breasts.
Do I need to tell you that dad's opposition to having a working wife is going to land him on the couch for a night? But that's as "real" as it gets in "My Wife." By the end of the episode, dad has seen the light, mom takes the job, and kiss-kiss, hug-hug sitcom smarmony is restored.
"My Wife" is not without its charms. Wayans, who is co-creator and executive producer of the series, is a major talent who seems to have lowered the throttle on his daring, high-energy humor far enough to make a safe, smile-along 8 p.m. show. His partner, Don Reo, helped create just such an easygoing, family-friendly sitcom for NBC in the 1990s, "Blossom."
"My Wife" does have some sense of social consciousness, as seen in an exchange tonight when Junior wants $35 to see his favorite rapper, MC Murder-Death. Both mom and dad's objections are presented in a low-key, joke-joke way, but at least they're presented, and the word "role model" actually is used in the back-and-forth between dad and Junior.
In the end, though, this is a sitcom without a breakthrough bone in its body, and I hate it when network television plays it this safe.
This is a Disney-owned production for the Disney-owned network. "My Wife and Kids" is the Disney-ization of the African-American family. Judge for yourself whether that's a good thing.
What: "My Wife and Kids"
When: 8 p.m.
Where: WMAR (Channel 2)
In brief: Damon Wayans stars in the Disney-ization of the African-American family.