Melissa and Joey - "Pilot"

Melissa and Joey - "Pilot"

Melissa and Joey debuts tonight on ABC Family at 8 p.m. Eastern.

I am a die hard multi-camera, filmed-in-front-of-a-live-studio-audience sitcom apologist. I think it's absolutely maddening that the top creative personnel and network programming heads seem resistant to playing around with the format, updating it for a new day and age. Because of this reluctance, the void for multi-camera sitcoms has been filled by cable networks, but in most cases, this void is filled sort of shamefully. TBS has any number of multi-camera sitcoms, but it seems embarrassed by them, as well it should be. Every single one of them - be it The Bill Engvall Show or House of Payne - has been absolutely awful. At the same time, though, as Jamie Weinman was pointing out today, when a bad sitcom is launched or a sitcom with flaws that could work them out (as with Louis C.K.'s slightly underrated Lucky Louie - a bad show, but one with promise), the format is generally blamed more by critics and online commentators than the, well, bad jokes.

There's one place that has made the world safe for multi-camera sitcoms, and those shows are massive, massive hits: cable for kids. The Disney Channel is rarely embarrassed by its giant stable of sub-TGIF content, and Nickelodeon boasts one of the top shows on cable in iCarly, a generally winning program that I don't mean to insult when I say that it would fit well into the most classic TGIF bloc (which probably featured Boy Meets World in some way, shape, or form). None of these shows are for me - since they're aimed at 8-year-old girls, after all - but iCarly strikes me as the kind of program one doesn't mind their kid laughing along to while they do something else. Pleasant background noise, in other words.

I have no idea why multi-camera sitcoms seemingly play better with kids than everybody else. I suspect it's something to do with savviness. A new multi-camera sitcom on network has to overcome decades of experience in the format from savvy viewers, who've seen Cheers and seen Seinfeld and seen All in the Family and know that The Big Bang Theory, no matter how entertaining it can be, isn't even close to being on that level. Similarly, back when every sitcom on TV seemed to be copying Everybody Loves Raymond, there was a sense that originality had died in comedy (and, indeed, it was a dark time for TV comedy). But that lack of originality was blamed on the format itself, not the fact that the shows were based on tired premises and didn't have the unique point-of-view Phil Rosenthal and Ray Romano brought to Raymond.

But there are many, many performers who are uniquely suited to the rhythms of multi-camera sitcoms. When I watched a bunch of 'Til Death for this blog post, I had trouble imagining Brad Garrett adjusting his rhythms to another format, as Romano has with Men of a Certain Age. Similarly, as much as I like Cougar Town, in the early days of that show, Courteney Cox was playing to a live studio audience that simply didn't exist, and the show often left awkward pauses after her jokes in those early days, pauses that seemed as if they should be filled by laughter that never came. It ended up stifling laughs in the throat, feeling more awkward than necessary. (For better or worse, the way to go with a single-camera sitcom is often full-speed ahead, piling on the jokes until it hurts, as, say, Arrested Development and Community do.)

Another of these performers is Melissa Joan Hart, who I wouldn't call a great actress or anything but would certainly call a winning actress. She's someone who's fully engaged in everything she does, and if she's handed a terrible joke, well, she'll just sell the shit out of it. I have no idea if she was the creative impetus behind her new ABC Family sitcom, Melissa and Joey (her production company's name is on it), but I can see why ABC Family, which fell behind Disney and Nickelodeon in the "sitcoms for kids" arms wars early, jumped at the chance to work with her. Much of Melissa and Joey is, frankly, terrible, but Hart just keeps giving it her all, and you're constantly reminded of how a committed actress can make subpar punchlines seem if not funny at least palatable in the multi-camera format. The studio audience is laughing agreeably (and doesn't seem to be overhyped in its laughter), and you can see why. The actress is trying hard for them, and they're happy to oblige her efforts. You're not as willing to go along with it at home, but whatever.

The central premise of Melissa and Joey is nothing new. Hart plays a high-powered government official who's taken in her niece and nephew for reasons that are mostly glossed over. Now, however, her work life and her home life are coming into conflict with each other. Whatever will she do?! Well, she'll hire Joey Lawrence, as a disgraced commodities trader who has been a thorn in her side, to be their nanny, and he'll, of course, prove to be a natural at the whole thing, building a rapport with both kids and making things run more smoothly in the household. You might even say that this new situation is his brand new life around the bend and/or that he's the new boy in the neighborhood.

As I've mentioned above, the joke writing here isn't exactly inspired, and all of the line delivery tends to fall into the ba-BA-ba-ba-BA-BA-BA rhythm that seems to have infected every sitcom since Friends, except for Lawrence, who may as well be playing his character from Blossom all grown up and formerly a commodities trader. The kids are all right, as these things go, and the guest cast does well with what it has to do. It's never immediately clear just why this is on ABC Family and pitched at kids (or, rather, the ABC Family audience, which is awkwardly too old for Disney or Nickelodeon but too young for everything else), since one of the jokes revolves around words that rhyme with Lunt, but it does seem virtually indistinguishable from something ABC would have put on after Family Matters in the heyday of TGIF.

Really, the only reason this gets a vaguely good grade at all is because of Hart. I didn't realize that my TV was missing her, but apparently it was. She's very good at what she does, but what she does is such a limited skillset that she apparently had to make up a reason to bring it back to the small screen. Melissa and Joey is going to be appointment TV for precisely no one, but if your kids have it on and you're doing some other things, you might look up every so often, see Melissa Joan Hart falling gamely over a garbage bag, and smile.

Stray observations:

  • So if you ran into Melissa Joan Hart somewhere and you were an asshole, would you yell, "Hey, Clarissa Explains it All!" or "Hey, Sabrina the Teenage Witch!"?
  • There's a character who is Melissa's assistant, and she's in nearly every scene (or close to every other scene), but she's only a guest star. This makes me feel bad for her, since she's clearly a regular they don't want to pay more money.
  • I appreciate the decision to have the two kids on the show be young teenagers, since that means there's very little "cute kid" humor, but it does lead to an awkward premise, since Hart is still clearly too young to be the mother to two teenagers.
  • I have only seen the first of the two episodes that air tonight. For all I know, the second turns the show into an existential drama worthy of Eugene Ionesco. Tread carefully.

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