During his incandescent run on Fox’s early-’90s skitcom In Living Color, Damon Wayans seemed destined for major stardom. Unlike his too-eager-to-please brother, emcee/executive producer Keenen Ivory, Damon brought an uproariously angry edge to characters like Homey the Clown (”Homey don’t play that!”) and Louis Farrakhan (in the sci-fi spoof Star Trek: The Wrath of Farrakhan). Sometimes his work crossed the line into cruel stereotypes, yet you couldn’t take your eyes off the guy, even as he glowered behind the madly gyrating Fly Girls during the show’s closing credits.

Too many bad movies proved Wayans was more a Major Payne than Bulletproof, leading him back to TV, where he flopped as an undercover cop in Fox’s 1998 farce Damon and now stars in ABC’s My Wife and Kids. As Michael Kyle, a trucking-company owner in Stamford, Conn. — or, as he calls it, ”the city that always sleeps” — Wayans hasn’t lost his anger. He’s merely misdirected it.

Michael berates his voluptuous wife, Janet (Martin’s Tisha Campbell-Martin, who gave birth over last summer’s hiatus), about her weight gain. She loses her job as a stockbroker, so he reluctantly hires her to keep his company’s books, then tells her, after spending an entire day with her, ”Don’t take this wrong…right now, I just need you to shut up.” When, say, Ray Romano and Patricia Heaton have such heated exchanges on Everybody Loves Raymond, you can still feel the affection beneath the surface, but Wayans and Campbell-Martin display no such chemistry.

He’s even meaner to his teenage son, Jr. (George O. Gore II), whose intelligence he often questions (”Have you given any thought to what you’re gonna be when you graduate — besides 28 years old?”). The trouble is, the kid doesn’t seem dumb enough to earn such insults. In fact, there’s nothing really wrong with Michael’s wife and kids, who also include Backstreet Boy-crazy high schooler Claire (Jennifer Nicole Freeman) and tot Kady (the adorable Parker McKenna Posey).

Unfortunately, there’s almost no one else around — some episodes don’t feature any guest stars — so Michael takes out his aggression on his family, as well as the occasional celeb. Criticizing his son’s messy room, he snaps, ”You know you’re not supposed to have food in this room. It’ll attract ants—and possibly Rosie O’Donnell.”

When the scripts aren’t mean-spirited, they’re simply generic. Cocreated by Wayans and Don Reo (Blossom), the series recycles ancient sitcom plots, updating them with smuttier jokes. Overprotective dad Michael tries to keep Claire from dating, explaining of one potential beau, ”He’s a sperm bomb, and I don’t want my daughter anywhere near when he detonates.” Not to worry; by episode’s end, Claire’s reassuring her father that ”even after I’m married, I’ll always be your little girl.” Didn’t Princess make that same promise to her dad on Father Knows Best?

And yet, Wife is the closest thing ABC has to a hit comedy (it’s ranked 38th for the season), and the net has aired the show as many as five times a week to plug the many holes in its schedule. In its regular Wednesday-at-8 p.m. slot, the series has just been paired up with George Lopez, another family sitcom that’s a lot less painful than the show it’s temporarily replacing, Jim Belushi’s torturous According to Jim.

Lopez, a stand-up comic and former L.A. deejay, has the shaggy, lumpy likability of a Latino Oliver Platt. Like Wayans, he plays a blue-collar manager, an airplane-parts factory worker recently promoted to oversee his old comrades on the assembly line. One of them happens to be his domineering mom (Perfect Strangers’ Belita Moreno), whom he is asked to lay off in the pilot episode. He does it, only to be told later by his boss that it was just a test of his corporate loyalty. ”That’s why I work in a factory,” says George. ”I’m no good at tests.”

Lopez wrings genuine laughs out of such gentle one-liners, and his show benefits from the appealing presence of Constance Marie (Tortilla Soup) as his wife, Angie. Also turning up in the April 10 episode is Sandra Bullock, one of the series’ executive producers, as a klutzy factory employee. You can certainly see why the Speed star would want to be in business with Lopez. Even when he’s firing his own mom, he seems bighearted. Damon Wayans, to his show’s detriment, don’t play that. My Wife and Kids: C George Lopez: B

My Wife and Kids
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