In another life, Kirstie was known as Giant Baby, a more fitting title for the story of a Broadway actress (Kirstie Alley) reunited with the grown son (Eric Petersen) she gave up for adoption 26 years prior. But that was before creator Marco Pennette sold the project to TV Land, a network whose programming strategy has skewed heavily toward name recognition since Hot In Cleveland hit in 2010. Because TV Land is the network where veteran multi-camera stars relive Must See days of the past, the show put its headliner’s name in lights—despite the fact that Kirstie’s POV is more Fat Actress Kirstie Alley than the Cheers Kirstie Alley with whom TV Land audiences would be familiar. This is also in spite of the fact that no onscreen character—not even the one played by Alley—is named Kirstie.
All this leaves Kirstie vulnerable to the biggest pitfalls of the name-recognition sitcom: Whatever Alley or co-stars Rhea Perlman or Michael Richards do here, it can’t possibly match up to what they’ve done on other, better shows. It’s especially pronounced for Alley, who’s still enamored of the go-for-broke, screwball sense of humor that once made viewers think “Shelley who?”, even if the series bearing her name isn’t quite up for it. The major problem with shows like Kirstie is that they’re all façade—sure, these may be the faces and personalities of two of TV’s greatest comedies, but they’re not working in concert with the likes of James Burrows, Larry David, or Larry Charles anymore. Playing Alley’s manager, Thelma, Perlman says things like her acid-tongued Cheers waitress Carla would say, but she’s not saying them in Carla’s voice.
Kirstie could really use the fluid zip of someone like Burrows or Pamela Fryman behind the camera, too. At the end of the big, messy set pieces that should be the show’s signature, the entire production acts like it could use a long lie-down. The flour-flecked cold open of episode three, “Arlo’s Birthday,” lunges and lurches but never finds the right energy level. Only Richards appears to dial in to the “live before a studio audience” kitchen high jinks. In devoting so much physicality to his performance, Richards is often the only cast member who appears to be having fun at all—essential to his selling the role of Frank, the burnout chauffeur for Alley’s character, Madison “Maddie” Banks. That’s too bad for newcomer Petersen, whose own sleepy-eyed, low-key vibe only contributes to the show’s drowsiness.
It’s an even greater shame, because this ought to be Petersen’s story. The comedic core of Kirstie is the selfishness of Alley’s character, a theatrical diva accustomed to getting her way and only attuned to her needs. (For instance, making a bright blue “action bag” her first birthday present to the biological son whom she just met.) Consequently, Kirstie too often makes itself about Maddie when it should be about Maddie and Arlo—or just plain Arlo, seeing as he has a compelling enough fish-out-of-water story as the adopted Jersey kid thrust into the gaudy world of Maddie Banks. Each of the four episodes distributed to critics finds Maddie learning something new about motherhood, but she didn’t specifically need Arlo to help her come to these conclusions. Someone else could’ve reunited her with her estranged mother (Cloris Leachman) or roused her to deliver a stirring speech about forgiveness and second chances prior to curtain call.
But there is no one else, because the show is called Kirstie for a reason: There are other principals on hand, but Alley is the lead position, and don’t you forget it. These early episodes want to have their cake and eat it, too, ridiculing Maddie’s self-centered behavior while tacitly approving of it in order to generate the biggest laughs from the studio audience. Kirstie is a star vehicle masquerading as an ensemble piece, and that’s certainly not the best example to set for future generations of multi-camera sitcoms and the giant babies they may include.
Created by: Marco Pennette
Starring: Kirstie Ally, Rhea Perlman, Michael Richards, Eric Petersen
Debuts: Wednesday at 10 p.m. Eastern on TV Land
Format: Half-hour multi-camera sitcom
Four episodes watched for review