The fact that absolutely everything about the new sitcom Getting By is utterly familiar — its stars, its premise, its jokes — actually helps to make the show more interesting, if not exactly funny. Getting By stars Cindy Williams (Laverne & Shirley) and Telma Hopkins (Family Matters) as single mothers. Both have two children and poor-paying jobs as Chicago social workers (Bill Clinton, please note). They all move into one house to save money and pool their meager resources — Just Barely Getting By is more like it. Williams plays Cathy, the nice, idealistic, somewhat prissy one; Hopkins plays Dolores, the sarcastic, cynical, somewhat wild one. Cathy and Dolores get on each other’s nerves, but deep down, you know they’re the best of best friends.
This concept is, shall we say, tried and true. Two women raising separate families under one roof? Sounds like Kate & Allie. Odd-couple friends? Oh, Perfect Strangers, Bosom Buddies (Hopkins had a small role in that fondly remembered 1980-82 comedy starring Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari), Williams’ own Laverne & Shirley, and, of course, The Odd Couple. You can trace this mismatched-pals stuff back to Jackie Gleason’s Ralph and Art Carney’s Norton (The Honeymooners) and on past Abbott and Costello to Laurel and Hardy. Getting By was created by William Bickley and Michael Warren, who also gave us Family Matters and the current hit Step By Step — which is, come to think of it, about single parents (Suzanne Somers and Patrick Duffy) who meet, marry, and raise their mutual broods in one house! Bickley and Warren were also executive producers of Perfect Strangers and wrote for the show from which Laverne & Shirley was spun-off, Happy Days.
In short, Getting By has, depending on how you look at it, one of the most time-honored or derivative backgrounds imaginable. Its debut episode on March 5 isn’t much of a laugh riot, but there’s a sense in which it doesn’t have to be. What audiences will enjoy about the show is that it’s an efficiently crafted sitcom whose very predictability is comforting and likable. Even the trickiest part of the premise to finesse as comedy, its racial subtext — the prissy woman with two girls is white, the brassy woman with two boys is black — is handled in the most reassuring way.
At one point, Cathy’s little Julie looks at Dolores’ Marcus and says, ”I always wanted a brother; I just didn’t know he’d be” — she slips into a street accent — ”a bruh-tha.” To which Marcus replies, ”Don’t talk black — it’s not attractive in a white chick.” The two then exchange comradely chuckles; it’s sitcom multiculturalism at its most brazen.
As in all Bickley-Warren shows, every character here is a clearly recognizable type. Cathy’s girls consist of Nikki, a teenage wiseacre (Nicki Vannice), and Julie, an adorable 9-year-old blond moppet (Ashleigh Blair Sterling). Dolores’ boys are Marcus (Merlin Santana), a tough guy with a heart of gold whom the ABC production notes describe as a ”15-year-old problem child,” and Marcus’ 14-year-old brother, Darren (Deon Richmond). Darren is quiet, polite, and a budding buppie: He is shown reading Forbes to pick up financial tips.
Comedy on Getting By is rudimentary whenever it’s not downright crass. Dolores says of her moody firstborn, ”Marcus has been in a bad mood since he was born — that’s why I didn’t breastfeed him.” Marcus notes of his new housemates, ”I can’t believe I’m sharing a bathroom with two girls and neither of them is from En Vogue.”
Given material like this, it helps that Williams and Hopkins are so skilled at wringing laughs out of the drabbest TV scripts. They mug like troupers, and it’s probably just a matter of weeks before they start engaging in some Laverne & Shirley-style slapstick.
But I doubt these two genial actresses have hitched themselves to an instant hit. Right now, Getting By lacks two elements that have made Bickley and Warren’s previous shows popular: romance (in the pilot there’s not a full-grown male in sight) and an oddball character who could become a breakout star for young viewers (as Matters‘ Steve Urkel has). In a move that may disorient kids who watch too much TV, Hopkins will continue to play her sassy Aunt Rachel character on Family Matters while Getting By gets off the ground. Given the shaky quality of this new effort, that’s a wise strategy. C+