By Ken Tucker
Updated October 03, 2008 at 04:00 AM EDT

Long before The 40 Year-Old Virgin or either version of The Office, Molly Shannon was practicing the comedy of awkwardness with gawky perfection. In the mid-’90s, her Catholic schoolgirl Saturday Night Live character Mary Katherine Gallagher, all flailing limbs and deluded self-confidence, was squirmily brilliant. Shannon brings the same fearless ickiness to her new sitcom Kath & Kim, but the comedy fails her small-scale genius: She’s just playing a sad character surrounded by unfunny losers.

Adapted from an Australian hit, this K&K is clearly designed to fit in with The Office and 30 Rock on NBC’s Night of Poker-Faced Farce. Shannon is Kath, a spandex-loving middle American bursting with a self-help-fueled confidence we know is doomed for disappointment. She even maintains a sweetly loyal if utterly absurd faith in her daughter, Kim, a slacker-in-every-sense version of Kath.

In the Aussie series, as played by co- creator Gina Riley, Kim had a greedy self-centeredness that sparked fun. But the U.S. Kim, addicted to TV gossip shows and Doritos, is played by Selma Blair (Hellboy) as though a vacant stare is the same as a classic slow burn. It’s not. Blair is no stranger to sitcoms — almost a decade ago she costarred in a WB dud, Zoe, Duncan, Jack & Jane — but in Kath & Kim she looks as if she’s not even listening to Shannon; Blair just glares randomly.

It doesn’t help that the jokes around her are so obvious. In the second episode, Kim walks away from someone after saying, ”That?s what you get for having no class,” and the camera pans down to show her thong underwear riding above her short shorts. All the shot needed was a corny trombone underscore: bwah-bwahhhh…

The comic burden falls, therefore, upon Shannon’s Kath and her fiancé, cringey horndog Phil. He’s played by John Michael Higgins, the excellent improviser from such Christopher Guest movies as Best in Show. The alleged humor here is that these two find each other incredibly hot. Watching this duo make goo-goo eyes or take a hip-swiveling ”speed walk” around the neighborhood represents the high point of Kath & Kim‘s scant hilarity: The laffs are all in physical shtick.

The core problem with K&K is that there’s no character to root for. These days, we don’t need to identify with sitcom characters or even love them. (Garry Shandling and Ricky Gervais proved that, immortally.) But we do need an occasionally recognizable — if silly — human, or a compelling relationship, to keep us coming back. For all of Shannon’s luminescence and Blair’s intense glower, neither Kath nor Kim is alive in this way. C?