Ron Howard’s 1989 movie Parenthood was essentially a big-screen sitcom with dirty words, unresolved plot-lines, and the nerve-racking mannerisms of Dianne Wiest. It’s not surprising, therefore, that, tidied-up and Wiest-less, Parenthood is much better as a real, small-screen sitcom. Ed Begley Jr. has taken over Steve Martin’tin’vie role as a hapless suburban father, and Begley is a pleasant surprise: After all those years as a selfish nerd of an intern on St. Elsewhere, who’d have thought he’d be so convincing as a kindly dad?

Begley manages to convey both the exhilaration and confusion of fatherhood, while Jayne Atkinson (A Year in the Life) comes across as a strong yet sensitive mother. They do their share of muddling through the various crises of their teen and preteen kids, but unlike most television parents, Begley and Atkinson seem genuinely interested in their children — they don’t view them as burdens or wiseacres.

Like the movie, this TV Parenthood also follows the sprawl of an extended family — grandparents, cousins, in-laws, and friends all pop up here.

The result is thirtysomething crossed with The Waltons — and I mean that as a compliment. Sharply observed by producer-director Allan Arkush, Parenthood does without all those cheap one-liners that clog up most sitcoms. The fall season has a number of movie adaptations scheduled (Uncle Buck, the Look Who’s Talking series called Baby Talk); Parenthood is by far the best. A-

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