This fall you can really feel the Modern Family influence in the development of most networks' new comedy slates, and it's especially noticeable on NBC's Thursday lineup. With the exception of the long-running Parks and Recreation, which until the double expectancy whammy of Ann Perkins and Ron's Diane had been curiously child-free for a show supposedly set in America's heartland, NBC's new sitcoms are very much in the family way, for better or worse.
One actually bills itself as Welcome to the Family (8:31/7:31c), and if familiarity is a prerequisite for your viewing patterns, you'll feel right at home here. This innocuous domestic farce pivots on a culture clash between two families brought together by their young offsprings' unplanned pregnancy (a mini-trend if you count CBS's edgier Mom). The sharp performances of the combative in-laws-to-be help sell the overdone situation, with Mike O'Malley (Glee, among so many others) and Mary McCormack (In Plain Sight) snappishly funny as the exhausted parents of the obnoxious teen mom (Ella Rae Peck), whose departure to college they were so close to being able to celebrate. Justina Machado (Six Feet Under) and Ricardo Chavira (Desperate Housewives) are equally tart as the proud, now frustrated, parents of a valedictorian golden-child (Joseph Haro), Stanford-bound until this paternal hiccup. It's hate at first sight between O'Malley and Chavira's accusatory dads, which allows for some promising comic conflict, but another twist at the pilot episode's end suggests that Welcome's baby-bump fixation could come at the expense of delivering much in the way of original comedy.
At least it's agreeably forgettable, unlike the aggravating disappointment that follows: the frantic Sean Saves the World (9:01/8:01c), which has the unenviable task of going up against last week's breakout hit, CBS's The Crazy Ones. As an overwhelmed single gay dad, Sean Hayes engages in a style of forced slapstick that feels less like his Will & Grace "Just Jack" glory days and more like he's "just desperate" for laughs. I can only imagine the disdain Jack MacFarland would have had for the upcoming storyline (Oct. 17) in which Sean fumbles his first hot date in ages — a fix-up by his witheringly domineering mom (Linda Lavin, the show's best asset) — because he's too busy fretting about his teenage daughter (Sami Isler) going off to a party.
Matters are no better at Sean's online-retail workplace, where he contends with a perversely dictatorial new boss (Thomas Lennon) who in the same date-gone-wrong episode mistakenly believes Sean has a crush on him. Hilarity does not ensue. This isn't so much a comeback as a case of go away and try again.
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MILLER TIME: CBS's new addition to the family-sitcom ranks is the beyond-broad The Millers (8:30/7:30c), which finds a blue-chip cast going shamelessly lowbrow for belly-laugh humor — fart jokes are especially prevalent in the pilot — and not unlike series creator Greg Garcia's bluer-collar Raising Hope, the dumb-laugh ratio is surprisingly high. Much of the credit goes to pros like Beau Bridges and Margo Martindale (Justified) as Tom and Carol, the shrill buffoon dad and battleaxe mom of newly divorced son Nathan (Will Arnett, here reduced to mostly playing mortified straight man). When Tom is inspired by Nathan's split to leave the nagging Carol — "Guess what? I want to be happy!" he shrieks — Mom promptly moves in with her horrified son. Martindale in particular lands even the most embarrassing moments with theatrical gusto, whether trying to retch up a sleeping pill upon hearing of her son's divorce or cutting the rug with Nathan (when not cutting the cheese) while looped. I won't oversell The Millers beyond noting that this kind of outrageous comedy is well suited for the big-tent CBS brand, and well positioned between the brainy-goofy shenanigans of runaway hit The Big Bang Theory and the zany antics of Robin Williams on The Crazy Ones.
BLOOD TIES: Only at the CW, where so many shows seem cut from the same genre cloth, would they call a spinoff The Originals. This refers, for the uninitiated, to the Original Vampire Family introduced on The Vampire Diariesand who have now migrated back to their old feeding ground of New Orleans, which they once ruled. A fine setting indeed for this sort of supernatural gumbo, a magical place that, unlike Diaries' Mystic Falls, doesn't need an excuse to throw a mystical party (with high body counts) every week. Following today's theme, we learn in the acres of supernatural exposition in this turgid and convoluted pilot that "Family is power" — that's Elijah's (Daniel Gillies) plea to his hot-headed hybrid vamp half-brother Klaus (Joseph Morgan) to embrace his destiny and accept that he has sired—as in fathered—a hybrid baby, currently gestating within werewolf transplant Hayley (Phoebe Tonkin). This unborn miracle child is being used as a pawn in an ongoing battle between the city's oppressed witch population and wicked alpha vamp Marcel (Charles Michael Davis), who once upon a bloody time was Klaus's protégé. "The blood never stops flowing and the party never ends!" declares the recklessly power-mad Marcel, who goes on in this seriously overwritten premiere to crow, "I'm the king! Show me some respect!" Fighting words to the immortal but envious Klaus. Game on, but after this, The Originals will be moving to Tuesdays, where it faces its greatest challenge to immortality by taking on Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., The Voice and NCIS.
Meanwhile, as the Vampire Diaries mothership embarks on its fifth season (8/7c), the action moves to Whitmore College, with Elena and Caroline as the vampiest of dorm roomies — but where's third wheel Bonnie, they wonder? Back in Mystic Falls, the now-human Katherine pesters Damon, while Stefan-actually-Silas makes his presence known. Those damned doppelgangers!
THE THURSDAY GUIDE: A Scandal recap (8/7c) kicks off ABC's Thursday lineup, while the third season picks up (10/9c) in the wake of the bombshell revelation about Olivia's relationship with Mr. President. ... A battle of the blondes erupts on NBC's Parks and Recreation (8/7c), when Leslie (Amy Poehler) clashes with an Eagleton city councilor played by Veronica Mars's Kristen Bell. ... As Fox's Glee continues to bleat the Beatles, Tina (Jenna Ushkowitz) is nominated for prom queen, an honor that goes to her head. ... Life after Smash: Jeremy Jordan appears on CBS's Elementary (10:01/9:01c) as the son of the patient Watson killed. ... Among the cable premieres: Nickelodeon's Deadtime Stories (8/7c) conjures up creepy tales for kids as told by "The Babysitter" (Jennifer Stone). ... Discovery's Man, Cheetah, Wild (9/8c) profiles Kim Wolhuter, who lived up close and personal with a family of predatory cats for more than a year in Zimbabwe. ... E!'s docu-series Society X With Laura Ling (10/9c) opens with the former Current TV correspondent investigating the proliferation of dangerous synthetic drugs. Which watching this much TV in a night could drive you to. But stay strong. The season is young.