First let’s take a moment to praise ABC’s new comedy Sons & Daughters for what it omits: a fat husband, a knockout wife, and Jenna Elfman.
The third new series off the network’s ’06 comedy assembly line (after Crumbs and Emily’s Reasons Why Not), S&D is a family show that strives to — forgive me for pulling out this old chestnut — put the ”fun” in ”dysfunctional.” Its customizations on the sitcom template are twofold: S&D is partially improvised (thanks, Larry David) and requires an advanced degree in genealogy to untangle all the family relationships.
At its center is Cameron (co-creator Fred Goss), a haggard but cool dad (don’t forget ”cool” or he may smother you with his black Ramones T-shirt) with the slightly familiar, worn face of a performer who could have appeared on Saturday Night Live at some point in the mid-’80s. (No coincidence, perhaps, since SNL‘s Lorne Michaels is an executive producer of the comedy.) Cameron’s a small-town Midwestern man plagued by 13 (at my best count) family members. And uselessly busy plots unfold around him, such as: Cam borrows money from his sister, who doesn’t really have it, so she borrows from Mom, who provides her with the loan, but quickly wants it repaid so she can lend money to her other daughter. (Pause for breath here. Told you that genealogy degree would come in handy.) Despite all the hardships the writers heap upon Cameron, he’s so unsympathetic you actually end up rooting for his demented teenage kid, Henry (Trevor Einhorn — Frasier Crane’s son, Frederick, all grown up), as he pranks Dad by putting raw eggs in his bed and videotaping the resulting chaos.
Credit to Goss and Michaels for trying to bring improvisation into network situation comedy, but for a show that’s supposed to be all loosey-goosey, too many of S&D‘s visual and aural cues are rigidly staged. Take the opening theme (Cheap Trick’s ”Surrender” — you know the one: ”Mommy’s alright, Daddy’s alright, they just seem a little weird”) or the freeze-frame labels that explain the characters’ relationship to Cameron. A conversation about bowel movements is followed two scenes later by characters spreading manure in a garden. And unlike Malcolm in the Middle or Arrested Development (two obvious inspirations), S&D is awfully disdainful of the world it inhabits — never a promising sign for a fledgling series. As Cameron’s sister, Sharon (Alison Quinn), explains: ”I’m pretty in Cincinnati, I’m not pretty in a general sense.”
If that doesn’t put off Ohioans (and those who respect them), some disgusting one-liners might. Hair-removal jokes seem to be of particular fascination to the writers (Sharon tells her 13-year-old daughter, ”Everyone in this family tends to their own garden”), as are incest references that would make Oedipus blush. And just when you think all of your senses have been offended, episode 3 ends with a thud — yes, a fart. I thought I smelled something foul.