Back To You: "Pilot"

(Premieres on Fox tonight, 8pm ET / 7pm CT)

The traditional three-camera/filmed-before-a-live-audience sitcom has died more false deaths than Dracula but it's undeniably in the middle of a moment where only the innovative and the shameless survive. (For a study in contrasts look no further than CBS on Monday where the inventive How I Met Your Mother airs next to the leering Two And A Half Men>) The new Fox sitcom Back To You isn't particularly innovative and it's only occasionally shameless. It's a sitcom in the old mold, created, steered, and staffed by professionals. And, unfortunately, it's more craft than passion so far.

Creators Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd (not the actor) have a combined pedigree that includes The Golden Girls, The Larry Sanders Show, Wings and Frasier. They worked together on the latter two and apparently the experience was pleasant enough to draw in Frasier star Kelsey Grammer and frequent Frasier director James Burrows, whose sitcom career stretches back to the golden days of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Also on board: Patricia Heaton, late of Everybody Loves Raymond, the show most often referenced as the last example of the great, traditional sitcom. (To be honest, I can count on one hand the number of episodes I've seen but it always seemed sturdy to me.)

Based around a Pittsburgh station's local newscast, Back To You rather obviously takes Mary Tyler Moore as its model. (But it should be noted that, as a former correspondent in Madison, Wisconsin, Levitan comes by his small-market TV credentials honestly.) The pilot opens with a flashback to 1996 (that looks more like 1976), showing Grammer preparing to leave for a larger market as co-anchor Heaton and sportscaster Fred Willard sit by his side. We flash-forward 10 years and witness Grammer having an accidental on-air meltdown after a bimbo-ish correspondent blows her cue. The meltdown that lands him back in Pittsburgh where he reunites with Heaton and we learn they had a one-night-stand on the night of his departure.

We also meet the rest of the gang, none of whom seem poised to be the sort of breakout character that gives a sitcom a deeper bench than its stars. Josh Gad plays an overweight nerd who's just like every other overweight nerd you've ever seen. Ty Burrell plays a wannabe anchor whose character is never funnier than his unpronounceable last name ("Crezyzewski"). And as a busty, scantily clad weather forecaster, Ayda Field seems to have stepped in from some Latina variation on Spike Lee's Bamboozled.

The worst bits of the show are straight from the sitcom playbook. Gad sweats and sputters. Burrell and Field trade insults, usually while in motion. (Can someone please retire the walk-and-quip?) The material feels forced when it's not stale. Accused of overdoing the "caliente Latina thing," Field says, "I have gotten very far using my Latina." To which Burrell retorts, "It's pronounced 'La-tie-na.'" At this moment it's hard not to feel embarrassed not just for everyone involved but for the sitcom form itself.

But mostly it's more rote than embarrassing. High-wattage stars Grammer and Heaton simply don't have much to work with. They're old pros and have decent chemistry but they're not given much funny business. It'll be up to future weeks to build on a late-episode development that gives some depth to their relationship, but there's little evidence of that in the pilot's even-weaker second episode. Only Fred Willard, as usual, rises above it all, making a cheerily delivered line like, "I still throw up before every show," seem far funnier than it really ought to be on a show that otherwise never is. Grade: C

Stray observations: -- Grammer's anchorman refers to a stint working in the Twin Cities. Is this a set-up for a Mary Tyler Moore crossover? -- Heaton and Grammer's banter is mostly derived from double entendres about their one-time hook-up. This may not be the bottomless well of material that Back To You's writers seem to think it is. -- About that second episode: If you think "La-tie-na" is funny, wait for a joke about "covering the pumpkin festival." -- It would be nice to get a little more Pittsburgh flavor into the show. Cheers didn't shoot in Boston (at least not much) but it still felt like a Boston show. -- Seriously, why does 1996 look like 1976? Have they just seen Anchorman a few too many times?

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