Memo to the gods of summer TV: Enough already! These are the dog days of August, I understand that all too well (as I wring out my socks after every muggy walk home from work), but the last thing we need in this summer of original-programming bounty is a pack of actual barking dogs pretending to be comedies.
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Joey Lawrence fills that role, as "Joe," a down-on-his-luck commodities broker who lost his fortune and family in a financial meltdown. Let me be the first to say: "Whoa." He moves in, platonically, to work for Melissa Joan Hart, who appears to have graduated from teenage witch to uptight b-word. She's Mel, or "Aunt Mel," a former bad girl — so she says, but we're not buying it—turned workaholic city council member who's juggling accidental-parent duties as she cares for a teenage niece and nephew. (Mel's on-the-lam brother-in-law and jailed sister are responsible for the scandal that bankrupted Joe. Which reminds me: Next to this, Sons of Tucson was a classic.)
The crises in the opening episode involve annoyed citizens throwing trash all over Mel's porch while Joe steps in to counsel her rebellious niece Lennox after she's suspended for writing a poem that rhymes a teacher's name with an (unspoken) naughty word for a female body part. That's how today's family comedies strain for "edge." It's not only the trash that's stinking on Melissa & Joey.
A few hours later, in a set-up also precipitated by a financial scandal, Comedy Central introduces the mock-retro sitcom Big Lake, which boasts big-name producers (Will Ferrell, Adam McKay and Chris Henchy, whose The Other Guys is currently in theaters) but little in the way of actual comedy.
This show made some news a while back when Jon Heder dropped out, citing the usual creative differences. I'm struggling to figure out what "creativity" has to do with Big Lake, which replaced the Napoleon Dynamite one-hit wonder with a newbie from the improv world: nebbishy Upright Citizens Brigade vet Chris Gethard as Josh Franklin, a disgraced investment banker who moves from the big city back to his parents' home in rural Pennsylvania.
Gethard makes little impression in the lead role. He seems like a sidekick to a character who hasn't been written yet. Instead, he must support sidekicks of his own, both Saturday Night Live veterans. Horatio Sanz is Glenn, a rambunctious ex-con given to cheerful non-sequiturs, fessing up that "Life doesn't make any sense." Chris Parnell plays a snarky, burned-out history teacher named Chris Henchy (a meaningless in-joke) who comes along for the ride.
The only truly inventive character in this subversive scenario is Josh's kid brother (Dylan Blue), whose adorably wholesome and lisping persona is a front for a scheming, gun-toting, pill-peddling villain. "Why are you like this?" wonders the aghast Josh in what I can only imagine is a spasm of envy.
Most disappointing of all, because of higher expectations, is the return later this week of the Kids in the Hall ensemble from Canada, reuniting for a listless comedy "miniseries" (eight half-hour episodes airing over four weeks) titled Death Comes to Town (Fridays, 10/9c, IFC).
It seems curmudgeonly to tell a bunch of kids to grow up, but seriously, what happened to these Kids? So cutting-edge funny two decades ago on HBO, Death not only doesn't become them, it's DOA in the laugh department. Trying to evoke the spirit of Monty Python or the more recent Little Britain, this grotesque fable of a small town stalked by a pot-bellied Grim Reaper finds the guys (including Dave Foley, Scott Thompson and exec producer Bruce McCullough) playing multiple characters, often in drag or in this case, a freakish fat suit.
No amount of mugging can rescue a thin premise that relies on gross-out humor to score its few laughs—or, more to the point, yuks.
Melissa & Joey premieres Tuesday, 8/7c, on ABC Family
Big Lake premieres Tuesday, 10/9c, on Comedy Central
Death Comes to Town premieres Friday, 10/9c, on IFC