Sunday, May 01, 2005

TV Review Living With Fran

This week was Adbusters turn off your TV week. Never ones to cross a picket line, we didn't break the boycott. But we had seen three episodes of Living With Fran (two the first week, one the week before the boycott) and had enjoyed what we saw. We had taken notes and actually done a review based on the first two episodes when we pulled that to do the entry on the e-mails we get since the edition's theme was humor.

Living With Fran stars Fran Drescher and if you're one of the people who couldn't take her in The Nanny, this won't be the show for you. But The Nanny had a long run and initial ratings for Living With Fran have been strong, so we're thinking this might be one of the few new shows that actually gets (and deserves) a second season. (We've got our fingers crossed that Joey will be cancelled. Folding Star advises it's been renewed but we can still hope.)

In this show, Fran's a mother (of two) who's left a bad marriage and taken up with a new man who's . . . considerably younger. Ryan McPartlin plays opposite Drescher and is thus far an agreeable foil. How can you not like McPartlin's Riley after he confesses to loving the sound of Fran's voice?

Fran's daughter isn't (thus far) bothered by the age difference between Riley and Fran (Drescher's character name in this show is obviously Fran). The same can't be said for her son played by the adult actor Ben Feldman. There are moments when Feldman's Josh comes off a little too much like Miles from Murphy Brown (but both had control issues when it came to women -- a theme for this edition that we hadn't even planned to touch on!). Right now Feldman's character's providing the chief tension so hopefully the writers won't rush to make him completely accepting of the relationship.

No one's yet to give a poor performance in the cast (and guest stars like Marilu Henner and Charles Shaughnessy -- as Fran's ex-husband, nobody tell C.C. that Maxwell's on the market! -- have done strong work as well). What The Nanny had going for it besides Drescher (which is quite a lot) was some of the strongest regulars guest stars around including Renee Taylor, Ann Morgan Gilbert, Rachel Chagall, Spalding Gray and Nora Dunn. Hopefully, a similar repertoire company will become a part of Living With Fran.

For those who, like us, have grown weary of the fat-man, skinny wife sitcom set-up that seems so popular these days, Living With Fran is something to be excited about. There's no whining of "Oh Ray!" from the sidelines. And miracle of miracles, Fran actually has a job, no, more than that, a career. Already we've left Yes, Dear territory. That alone is something for us to get excited about.

But it's the comedy that will entertain you and make you realize how much has been lost in the last few years as The Nanny, Murphy Brown and assorted others disappeared. It's been as though The Dick Van Dyke Show never happened. Wives weren't funny (unless they were crabby and, yes, King of Queens is a lame Honeymooners rip-off). And women didn't get much air time (repeated air time, we're not talking about the "honeys" that are out of Jon Cryer and Charlie Sheen's league on Two Laughs and a Grin On a Good Night). Drescher's steering this sitcom (on screen, she's also one of the people involved off screen) and it's so rare that we see that these days (Hope & Faith is one exception) that it's hard not to get excited about that.

That the medium that gave us Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, Mary Tyler Moore, Lily Tomlin, Bea Arthur, Esther Rolle, Jackee, Roseanne, Susan St. James & Jane Curtain, Valerie Harper, Nell Carter, Candice Bergan and others hasn't had anything to offer other than Patricia Heaton (whose only "wacky" attribute is that ridiculous dye job), is truly sad. In better days, Heaton would be, at best, at a guest star. These days she passes for a leading lady. (Passes. When Everybody Is Supposed to Love Raymond finally leaves the air, thankfully leaves the air, she may quickly find herself in the same boat as what's her name who played Jill on Home Improvement.) (Yes, we know her name. But think quick and see how long it takes you to remember it.)

Fran Drescher is the real thing, a bonafide TV comedian who can excite an audience just by stepping into camera range. A real comedian, a genuine one, gives you a lift. Having already earned her right to stand alongside the other female greats of television via The Nanny, Drescher's returned just when sitcoms need her, when they're on the ropes as CBS tries to figure out how many C.S.I.'s they can churn out before America says enough and NBC does the same with Law & Order. In the mid-eighties, just as everyone said the sitcom format was dead (didn't TV Guide do a rest-in-peace story?), Kate & Allie and The Cosby Show came along to renew interest in the genre. (For some reason, far be it from us to suggest it's sexism -- okay, we'll suggest it, Kate & Allie is usually overlooked these days but it was CBS first hit sitcom in years and it and The Cosby Show renewed interest in the genre.)

That's a lot of weight to place on one individual's shoulders. But we were prepared to enjoy a half-baked sitcom with weak scripts and Living With Fran has already surprised us with strong scripts and a strong premise. We're looking forward to more pleasing surprises.
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