Bonnie Hunt is a sterling example of what the Australian critic Clive James meant when he once wrote, ”All you have to do on television is be yourself, always provided that you have a self to be.” One reason Hunt has long been such a treasured presence on talk shows is that unlike most celebrities, she has a life, a sure sense of self to present, rather than the mere spectacle of her stardom to display for our admiration or envy.
Hunt — a former nurse, raised in a large middle-class Chicago family and trained in improvisation in that town’s Second City troupe — is an artist who prizes spontaneity as a source of comedy. This last detail immediately distinguishes her from 98 percent of sitcom performers, and has proved both a blessing and a drawback. A couple of her earlier sitcoms, ”Bonnie” (1995-96) and ”The Building” (1993), were marvelous pieces of work but ratings flops. Viewers just didn’t get into the rhythm of her comedy: She wanted to open up the sitcom format to allow for small chuckles as well as big laughs; for dialogue that sounded like ordinary speech, only much funnier and faster; for moments of silence that added poignance, in addition to eruptions of riotous slapstick.
Now, at a time when the sitcom form needs fresh ideas more than ever, Hunt has come up with Life With Bonnie, and it’s the only — let me emphasize this: the one, the single, the sole — first-rate new sitcom of the season. The show’s premise is, as usual for Hunt, deceptively simple: She plays Bonnie Molloy, a wife and mother who also hosts a Chicago morning talk show. At home, she banters with her doctor husband (played with charming bemusement by Mark Derwin), a son with a mop of unruly red hair (Charlie Stewart), a daughter with a mop of unruly blond hair (Samantha Browne-Walters), and a baby boy she carries around with that combination of exquisite tenderness and casual recklessness that too few TV parents perform with conviction.
”Life With Bonnie” is great at capturing the chaos of family life — running late for school and work, conducting constantly interrupted conversations with a spouse. Hunt’s acting is terrific here; she laughs with genuine amusement at the kids’ non-sitcommy reactions and mumbled remarks, and when hubby says, ”You always say we never talk anymore,” she shoots back, ”I didn’t say it bothered me.”
At work, her hosting gig on ”Morning Chicago” is an equally rushed, often slapdash affair, overseen by a nervous producer played by David Alan Grier, and Hunt likes to gab with her pal, makeup artist Holly, played by Holly Wortell. (Both Grier and Wortell also appeared in the 2000 movie Hunt directed and cowrote, ”Return to Me,” which starred David Duchovny, who guest-starred in ”Life With Bonnie”’s second episode as vain weatherman Johnny Volcano; Hunt seems to inspire loyalty. And if you want to see where ABC got the idea for its ”According to Jim,” rent ”Return to Me” — Jim Belushi plays the same genial-slob character, only there he’s married to Hunt, who should sue.) The talk-show segments on ”Life” crackle — you can tell that many of the interviews are semi-improvised, with lots of Hunt wisecracks and impeccably timed double takes.