By EW Staff
Updated August 18, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT
Carin Baer

8-8:30 PM · FOX · Debuts Sept. 19

Three years after Frasier‘s end, Kelsey Grammer, 52, is returning to sitcoms flanked by an army of comedy T-800s. As Chuck Darling, an arrogant anchorman who returns to his old Pittsburgh station after his career takes a dive in L.A., the actor plays against an equally expert sitcom vet (and two-time Emmy winner), Everybody Loves Raymond‘s Patricia Heaton. The farcical half hour also costars the Master of the Oblivious Blowhard, Fred Willard (as an oblivious sports-reporter blowhard); was co-created by Frasier mainstay writer Christopher Lloyd and Just Shoot Me creator Steven Levitan; and is directed by James Burrows, veteran of practically every hall-of-fame sitcom from The Mary Tyler Moore Show to Cheers to Will & Grace. This is an all-star multi-camera cavalry, here not only to give Fox a hit but also charged with rescuing the fading format, and proving to the networks and media that TV’s seven dirty words are not ”was filmed before a live studio audience.”

Heaton, 49, who will play Chuck’s co-anchor Kelly Carr, had seen many scripts with housewife roles and was thrilled to be offered a working single mom. ”Kelly is very driven, organized, anal, and controlling,” says Heaton. ”It’s something we didn’t see that much in Raymond‘s Debra, but it’s a natural fit for my personality.” Grammer’s Chuck, meanwhile, is a woman-chasing man’s man, a trait completely alien to the fey Frasier. He does, however, share the shrink’s arrogance. ”This character isn’t as smart as Frasier was, but he’s also not as tortured,” says Grammer. ”Frasier was a mess, although that made him fun to watch. This guy is gonna be fun because you’re gonna watch him grow up.”

The cast seems to have meshed seamlessly, which gives rehearsals the feel of a sitcom in its seventh season, not its first. Ayda Field, who plays the slutty weatherwoman, came to this show from Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. ”You had Aaron Sorkin, Matthew Perry, and the whole deal, and I was like, ‘God, anything after this is gonna suck,”’ she says. ”And then to get to work on a show like this…” Josh Gad, a TV newcomer discovered in Broadway’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, was hired to play the shlubby, nervous young news director, Ryan, two days before the pilot taped. ”It was like skipping peewee leagues and going straight to the Yankees as a starting pitcher,” he says. (Out of Practice‘s Ty Burrell completes the cast as the acerbic man-on-the-street reporter who covets the anchor spot.)

Though the show’s leads may be middle-aged, Fox was convinced that the comedy would appeal to its young audience, just as House is the top-rated scripted show among teens, regardless of star Hugh Laurie being 48 years of age. ”Ultimately, Kelsey and Patty’s comedy is hip,” says Fox Entertainment chairman Peter Liguori. ”When I make these decisions, it’s not a demographic one, it’s a psychographic one. Are characters projecting a young attitude? Is it a little rebellious, a little daring? Is it willing to go way out there for the humor? On Back to You, the answer’s yes on every one of those fronts.” There’s no rebranding going on here to aim for a more adult audience: When the phrase ”old school” is used to describe Back to You, Liguori bristles, saying he would ”prefer not to use” that term. At Fox, any variation on the word ”old” is heresy.

But this sitcom is unabashedly old-school, reminiscent of multi-camera newsroom greats like Mary Tyler Moore and Murphy Brown. And over the past few years, a conventional wisdom has taken hold that the format is a dinosaur marching toward extinction. In fact, there are only eight multi-camera comedies anywhere on the fall network schedule, as opposed to nearly 60 in 1997. ”There’s never been more than a few good ones anyway, even when they dominated television,” says Grammer, dismissing the perceived comedy crisis. ”A multi-camera comedy doesn’t need to be disregarded on the basis of the format. It has to do with whether it’s funny or not.” — Josh Wolk

This is an online-only excerpt from the EW Fall TV Preview issue.