Laughs are hard to find in fall comedy lineup

It’s that time of year, when all of the TV networks debut their new shows, half of which will be completely forgotten within a year. This has been a particularly rough year, with quality shows few and far between. This week, I’ll be focusing on some of the notable comedies. We’ve already had a couple of cancellations, and more shows are teetering on the edge, so I tried to cover shows that seem like they have a shot at survival. I also ignored this season’s truly terrible shows—I’m looking at you, Dads. All of these shows are only a few episodes into their runs, so you can catch up easily on Hulu or on the networks’ websites.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine (FOX, Tues., 8:30 p.m.)

Brooklyn Nine-Nine is this season’s most assured comedy out of the gate, although that doesn’t exactly mean it’s hilarious. The early episodes of comedies are rarely very strong, but this show at least has its tone and sense of style figured out. Andy Samberg stars as a detective in Brooklyn’s 99th district, who clashes with a new captain played by Andre Braughre. Samberg plays a variation on his normal shtick, albeit toned down to create a believable character, but the real attraction here is Braughre, who gets most of the episode’s biggest laughs with a clever variation on the standard straight-laced authority figure. The show is still figuring out what to do with the rest of the cast, but is filled with talented comic actors like Terry Crews, Joe La Truglio, and Chelsea Peretti, who are versatile enough to handle whatever they’re given. The writing team is largely drawn from NBC’s Parks & Recreation, which was a show that took a little while to find itself, but once it did, it became one of the funniest shows on TV. Hopefully, Brooklyn Nine-Nine will follow the same path.

The Crazy Ones (CBS, Thurs., 9 p.m.)

I imagine people who still find everything Robin Williams does hilarious will enjoy The Crazy Ones. Williams plays an ad executive working with his daughter, played by Sarah Michelle Gellar. The show allows Williams to play a typical Robin Williams character in exactly the manner you would expect—cheap impressions, exaggerated mannerisms, the whole deal. Personally, I find him insufferable, but I recognize that others disagree, and will probably find him entertaining here.

More troubling is the fact the show doesn’t really have anything else going for it. Gellar is horribly underserved in a role that forces her to be an uptight killjoy. In fact, the strongest part of the early episodes has been James Wolk’s turn as a gleefully callous playboy-type. Troublingly, the pilot features the characters pitching an ad to McDonald’s, and while the result, featuring a fun guest spot from Kelly Clarkson, is the funniest moment the show has had yet, it feels uncomfortably like The Crazy Ones itself is actually an ad for the company. With some retooling, this show could settle into a nice groove, but for now it is difficult to recommend.

Michael J. Fox Show (NBC, Thurs., 9:30 p.m.)

Michael J. Fox is a national treasure, one who has been largely absent from the public view since he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 1991. The Michael J. Fox Show marks his return to television in a family sitcom designed around him. Fox plays a beloved news anchor sidelined by a similar disorder making his triumphant return to TV. It’s a thin premise, and his work life is only a small portion of the show’s focus. In reality, this is basically a gentler version of Modern Family, complete with cut-aways to confessional interviews. Thankfully, Fox has retained his impeccable comic timing, and the supporting cast includes Breaking Bad’s Betsy Brandt as his wife and The Wire’s Wendell Pierce as his best friend. Even his children are a little more clearly defined than the rest of this year’s crop of sitcom kids. The writing isn’t quite there yet, but the show’s goals aren’t exactly lofty. It probably won’t ever be a great comedy, but you could do worse than this show’s pleasant atmosphere.

Mom (CBS, Mon., 9:30 p.m.)

The latest show from prolific sitcom creator Chuck Lorre, whose previous work includes Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory, Mom suggests he may have moved on from his typical formula. Anna Faris plays a single mom whose life is upended when her long-absent mother, played by Allison Janney, comes back into her life. It’s certainly clichéd, but Faris and Janney are great together, both in the comic moments and in the more serious scenes. Both characters are recovering alcoholics, and when Faris’ daughter discovers she is pregnant, the show handles it with surprising restraint. The comedy is still hit-or-miss, with the scenes of Faris working as a waitress being especially grating, but the core relationships are good enough to make it worth sticking with.

Trophy Wife (ABC, Tues., 9:30 p.m.)

Trophy Wife is probably the season’s funniest debut. It’s the rare comedy with a pilot that is both consistently funny and presents a path forward, and the show has maintained its momentum in subsequent episodes. Malin Akerman plays a young woman who falls for an older man, played by Bradley Whitford, who happens to have three children from two ex-wives. With a title like Trophy Wife, it sounds like it’s probably cynical and mean-spirited, but this is actually a charming, pleasant show. Akerman has struggled with some of her recent dramatic roles, but she is a gifted comic actress, particularly when the show requires physical comedy. Whitford is also excellent, creating three distinct relationships with his female counterparts. The show’s only problem is that its plots have been rooted in the clichés of family sitcoms. Thankfully, it seems to be pulling from the genre’s long history rather than simply stealing from Modern Family like so many shows do today, but it still drags the show down a notch.

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