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Remote Patrol: Summer sitcoms

The fall season’s freshest new sitcom airs this summer, and it’s about…Pilgrims?

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Once upon a time, networks were content to take the summer off, filling their schedules with repeats and failed pilots. Then, fed-up viewers started migrating to cable during rerun season, and some didn’t come back in the fall. In the early ’90s, the nets tried to stem this erosion by premiering risky series in the summer. A few became hits — CBS’ Northern Exposure, Fox’s Melrose Place — but they were followed by a string of flops, like Fox’s limp British import The Ruby Wax Show and costly medieval adventure Roar.

This summer, the Big Six have pretty much closed up shop, despite the fact that one of their few recent successes, Drew Carey’s ABC game show, Whose Line Is It Anyway?, launched last August. Aside from The WB’s sitcom Movie Stars (originally meant for mid-season but now getting burned off), the only new entries are a handful of reality programs, like NBC’s freak show You Asked for It and Regis Philbin’s ABC contest Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

And then there’s Thanks (CBS, Mondays, 8:30-9 p.m.). At first sight, this sitcom — a kind of Gilligan’s Island with Pilgrims — might seem an odd fit between the contemporary comedies The King of Queens and Everybody Loves Raymond. Then you realize what all three shows have in common: They’re hilarious.

Like the best summer series — Exposure (in its early episodes), Michael Moore’s TV Nation (1994-95), and ABC’s too-short-lived Elmore Leonard adaptation Maximum Bob (1998) — Thanks is delightfully offbeat. Had it premiered in the fall (as once intended), it might’ve gotten lost amid the bumper crop of crappy new shows. Instead, it’s like an Atlantic Ocean of laughs amid the sweltering Sahara of summer reruns.

Cocreated by Cheers‘ Phoef Sutton and Grace Under Fire‘s Mark Legan, Thanks follows a family of English immigrants scraping to survive in the Plymouth colony. The cast features no household names, save The Mary Tyler Moore Show‘s Cloris Leachman as the clan’s grim yet horny granny. None of this looks promising on paper, but the show’s sharp, dark writing is its real star.

Plentiful humor is mined from the Puritans’ strict morals: ”Settle an argument for us,” the town constable (Murder One‘s John Fleck) asks the family’s shopkeeper father (Tim Dutton). ”Which is a worse sin — dancing or thinking about dancing?” There are also running gags about stockades, plagues, and public stonings. (Plus, it’ll help if you’re a sucker for a good Sir Walter Raleigh joke.)

Thanks makes the most of this bleak material by playing it in a broadly absurdist, Monty Python-esque spirit. In a bit reminiscent of the troupe’s dead-parrot sketch, for example, a customer tries to return the bones of a freshly eaten chicken (”From the moment we took it home, it seemed awkward and disoriented, then it fell on an ax and died”).

The sad truth is that Thanks is funnier than any sitcom premiering this fall. It’s certainly superior to the CBS show that will eventually supplant it, Ladies Man, which has a premise so unoriginal — a guy surrounded by a houseful of gals! — that it’s duplicated by another underwhelming autumnal offering, ABC’s Odd Man Out. If series that dare to diverge from the banal norm wind up the odd men out, the networks deserve to keep losing viewers to cable. In the meantime, let us give thanks for Thanks.