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On the laugh track

Patricia Heaton as Carol Kenney (center) in Carol’s Second Act (Sonja Flemming/CBS © 2019 CBS Broadcasting Inc.)

Television

On the laugh track

Three broadcast sitcoms this fall range from preachy to sweet

These days, streaming services like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, as well as premium cable channels like HBO, are dominating watercooler conversations and sweeping up awards shows. The reign of broadcast seems well past—at least when it comes to dramas or documentaries. But sitcoms are one genre the younger outlets haven’t taken over yet. When Americans want to laugh, they still typically turn to one of the Big Four networks. Here’s a rundown of three new offerings from CBS and ABC.

Carol’s Second Act

Perhaps no actor or actress on television right now has a stronger track record than Patricia Heaton. After playing Ray Romano’s long-suffering wife in Everybody Loves Raymond for nine years and the perpetually frazzled, blue-collar mom Frankie Heck in The Middle for another nine, Heaton is always a good bet for ratings. The question is, will audiences give her a second (or really a third) act in a show that doesn’t trade as much on the travails of motherhood?

It’s an iffy call. It’s not unusual for sitcoms to require a few episodes to find their feet, and it’s worth recalling that Seinfeld’s first outing wasn’t all that funny. The pilot for Carol’s Second Act requires too much heavy lifting from Heaton, who plays a retired teacher embarking on a new career as a doctor. The rest of the much-younger cast fails to match her physical comedy and her way with a one-liner. But this could be the fault of directing. Given a few more episodes for the stars to gel, Heaton’s latest venture could come together in the end. (CBS; premieres Sept. 26)

NBC Universal Media LLC

Kal Penn (NBC Universal Media LLC)

Sunnyside

One of the buzziest new sitcoms highlights a popular subject across television this season: the immigrant experience. Unfortunately, Sunnyside’s preaching is so heavy-handed, it’s unlikely even a left-wing choir will want to tune in to hear the mostly unfunny sermons.

Former Obama administration official Kal Penn stars as an Anthony Weiner–like disgraced city councilman. After one scandal too many leaves him ousted from office, he’s reduced to leeching off his sister. That’s when a group of immigrants hires him to tutor them through their citizenship tests and help them navigate the red tape of U.S. naturalization. One doesn’t expect much political nuance from a sitcom, but with characters whose entire description can be summed up with “Dominican lady who holds down a lot of jobs,” Sunnyside doesn’t even try. (ABC; Sept. 26)

Sonja Flemming/CBS Broadcasting Inc.

Billy Gardell and Folake Olowofoyeku (Sonja Flemming/CBS Broadcasting Inc.)

Bob Hearts Abishola

Christian audiences may not have appreciated the lazy sexual puns writer-producer Chuck Lorre—aka “The King of the Sitcom”—traded on in series like Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory. But there’s no denying Lorre’s gift for hooking an audience.

His latest show shares Sunnyside’s interest in immigrants, with the difference being that it’s actually funny. In fact, Bob Hearts Abishola may be the funniest (and certainly the sweetest) pilot the man with the golden laugh track has ever produced.

The premise is deceptively simple. Bob (Billy Gardell), who runs a compression sock business, goes to the hospital after a heart attack and develops a crush on his Nigerian nurse, Abishola (Folake Olowofoyeku). He spends the rest of the episode trying to track her down so he can begin wooing her.

I don’t use an antiquated term like “wooing” carelessly. Perhaps because Olowofoyeku is herself a Nigerian immigrant and executive producer Gina Yashere is the daughter of Nigerian immigrants, the pilot focuses on the culture clash inherent to their courtship, with almost none of the lame double-entendres that are Lorre’s hallmark. By presenting two well-developed, specific characters, instead of lazy types, it accomplishes what Sunnyside overtly works at. That is, encouraging the viewer to see our daily experiences through the eyes of the newly arrived. 

Yashere told CNN she hopes Bob Hearts Abishola will offer common ground for people at all points of the political spectrum to laugh. If it continues as it begins, it seems likely to succeed. (CBS; Sept. 23)