Sept. 24--Pay no mind to the baffled grunts, strangled moans and -- once in a while -- squeals of delight you hear around your neighborhood during TV prime time Tuesday. Those are just Disney shareholders, trying to figure out if they spent their money wisely. No network invested more heavily in this year's fall season than Disney's ABC, and half of its eight shows debut Tuesday.
The verdict: A definitive Who knows? There's one surprisingly funny sitcom, one surprisingly inane sitcom, one able but puzzling drama and, most intriguingly, a comic-book adaptation that ABC is promoting heavily but didn't provide to most TV critics in time to review.
The no-show is Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, a kind of sequel to the hit feature film Marvel's The Avengers. If you want to be optimistic, the show has Clark Gregg reprising his role as the grumbling, blue-collar agent Phil Coulson, and it's produced by the beloved fantasy auteur Josh Whedon.
If you want to be pessimistic, Whedon's last TV series, Dollhouse, was an enigmatic exercise in pinheadery, and TV networks ordinarily are the business of plying critics with hookers, drugs and spare internal organs to get them to watch pilots rather than holding them back, which suggests something amiss.
Reluctantly turning from rank speculation to shows I've actually seen, about the only mean thing I can find to say about the sitcom Trophy Wife is that series creator Sarah Haskins, who claims the show is based on her own life, has a very healthy ego. Casting a honey-and-a-half like Malin Akerman ( 27 Dresses) as yourself is roughly the equivalent of my suggesting that Tom Cruise play me in the upcoming biopic The TV Critic From Hell.
That aside, Akerman has wit and style, and so does the show, which is not the swirling bimbomania you might expect from the title. Like its network stablemate Modern Family, Trophy Wife is a sweetly funny tale of parents and kids uncertainly making their way along the largely uncharted map of blended-family life.
Akerman plays an ex-party girl named Kate who met her older husband (Bradley Whitford, The West Wing) when she fell on top of him from a barroom karaoke stage. The marriage was a package deal that included two frosty ex-wives and teenage twins not much younger than Kate.
Warren (Ryan Lee, Super 8) is enthusiastic about his lithe blonde stepmom, perhaps overly so. (He promptly writes a story for his English class about the mythic god Poseiden that begins, "His mighty trident ripped through his -- " well, you get the picture.) His dismissive sister, Hillary (Bailee Madison, Once Upon a Time), has seen it all before: "Nobody expects you to be a mom. Just think of yourself more as his third wife."
Kate is no airhead, but she's also no domestic engineer. Cooking breakfast inevitably ends in a bitter confrontation with the smoke alarm, and she's hilariously slow to realize that stuff her friends find amusing -- say, how she smuggled vodka into a classroom -- play more like how-to tips with the kids. And her conversations with the exes (stern doctor Marcia Gay Harden and New Age loop-de-loop Michaela Watkins) are passive-aggressive epics.
There's also plenty of good writing and acting in the drama Lucky 7, though to exactly what purpose is difficult to say. This tale of a bunch of gas-station employees who win the lottery is sometimes reminiscent of ABC's wildly underrated 2006 caper sitcom The Knights of Prosperity, about a bunch of down-at-the-heels blue-collar workers ineptly plotting to rob celebrities.
Other times it's more like an urban Grapes of Wrath, poignantly chronicling the desperation wrought by economic ruin. And sometimes it seems to be a harrowing populist jihad on the corrupting power of money. In a world where Nielsen viewers often seem to have been culled from a clinical study of attention-deficit disorder sufferers, Lucky 7 may need to settle on a single narrative.
Certainly it has the potential. The employees of the Gold Star Gas N' Shop who go together on a weekly lottery ticket daydream about using the money for everything from college educations to fat farms to fending off loan sharks and even corporate takeovers. As they soon discover, though, life is what happens while you're making plans. And it's not always pretty, even when you've got a lot of money.
Speaking of not pretty brings us to The Goldbergs, a misbegotten remake of The Wonder Years with Jewish characters -- or, rather, Jewish cliches. From the overweening mom barging into a bathroom to make sure her teenage son has washed his butt to the perennially distempered dad ("For someone so smart, you sure act like an idiot!"), The Goldbergs runs the gamut from stale to sour.
Another supposedly autobiographical sitcom, the show stars newcomer Sean Giambrone -- a pleasantly geeky kid who surely deserved better than this -- as an 11-year-old version of series creator Adam Goldberg, engaged in the small adventures of suburban life in the 1980s. But the largely manufactured nostalgia cannot overcome a script that, when it isn't recycling Borscht Belt jokes from 1957, relies heavily on bleeped obscenities.
If it's remembered at all after its quick disappearance -- which, no matter how abrupt, will not have come soon enough -- The Goldbergs will likely be known as the show in which George Segal's career was officially pronounced dead. When, at age 79, you find you've gone from co-starring with Richard Burton in Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf to playing a creepy old man giving his 11-year-old grandson lessons in how to cop a feel, that bell is tolling for you.
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