There’s a five or six year span somewhere around the late ’80s to early ’90s that has become known as a true Golden Age of sitcoms, and if the last two or three years can be said to have one absolute trend, it’s trying to update and recapture the formula that made those shows into the ratings behemoths they were. Not only are there interesting markers of public appeal like the fact that these Golden Age shows are becoming the staples of Nick-at-Nite and TV Land, but the surprisingly popular original programming on TV Land is clearly leading the way when it comes to this revival.
The bigger networks are adding their own efforts that, though decidedly updated in one way or another, aim to explore the possibilities still open by way of the general sensibilities and frameworks that worked so well for shows of the past. Certain titles stand out, such as Last Man Standing, as focusing on a mold that screams of an effort to take viewers back to the nineties.
The latest series is ABC‘s Family Tools, which not only throws us back to a nineties scenario, but is yet another attempt to bring shows across the pond.
Kyle Bornheimer stars as Jack Shea, son of Mr. Jiffy-Fix, Tony (J.K. Simmons). Mr. Jiffy-Fix is a one-van handyman operation, but the business is in a bit of trouble when repeated heart-related incidents begin to plague Tony. Forced to find someone to take over the business by his sister Terry (Leah Remini), Jack enters the picture. Unfortunately, Jack is a celebrated failure, having tried his hand at every profession the world has ever known, often with the result of shooting himself, or someone else, in the foot.
Rounding out the crew we have: Darren (Edi Gathegi), Tony’s (and now Jack’s) number two – Stitch (Danielle Nicolet), Darren’s sister and frequently-seen retail worker at the local supply store – and Mason (Johnny Pemberton), Terry’s oddly “Rednecky” son.
The comedy revolves largely around Jack’s general misfit status and marginal competence butting heads with not only his father’s difficulty expressing approval (and “old school” grumpiness), but also Darren’s lax attitude toward work. A smattering of flirting enters the picture, as does Mason’s proclivity for explosives, but the meat of the effort is tackling family by tackling family business. Of course, because our pilot can’t end without figuring out where the warm fuzzies come from, it turns out that our family may have certain things holding it together after all.
The result is that while there is something in the mix somewhere, and I suspect the British version may have a better idea of how to deliver it, the focus here is far too much on throwaway gags and pratfalls.
Curiously, this is a show that is zeroed in on me in terms of the cast, but all I can manage as a response is that their collective effort is wasted. Kyle Bornheimer can’t seem to catch a break on the sitcom front. Either he’s in something pretty solid that doesn’t land fans, or he’s fronting something like this, which ultimately mismanages everyone’s talents, leaving him to slap a dopey grin on his face, or howl at said shot to the foot. He’s proven that he can pull the comedy out of a lot of situations, but he’s working in a backdrop here that believes “the slow kid is funny because he has fireworks” is a comedic font that can drive much of a series. This part might seem a little slow, or it may be giving you time to realize that you aren’t laughing, but hold on a second and dopey will round the corner with some M-80s.
J.K. Simmons and Leah Remini are in the same boat. Simmons has few bigger fans, and while I wouldn’t say I love Remini, she’s proven her abilities in the sitcom arena. Both try like hell here, and have some worthwhile moments, but they’re up against it with Family Tools, which, by the way, isn’t “cool” enough to realize it doesn’t want its own double meaning. Even Edi Gathegi (only because he is likely to be the least known to most viewers) is far beyond the material here. He delivers pretty well, but only because he is often given the most to chew on, and that’s largely a result of the fact that his character is designed as the witness to the juvenile efforts at “misfortunate comedy.”
The fact that we move around a lot – from the van, to the supply store, to various job sites, etc. – opens the door for variety, which is largely missing from the now classic shows we’re after, but beyond that this is clearly a concept straight out of 1988. That alone is the sort of misfire that reminds of Showtime‘s Episodes, because it isn’t where the original, White Van Man, aimed at all.
It isn’t all bad though, and sadly, somehow, most of the best moments are when Simmons and Remini aren’t around. This may be because when we leave things to the two men in the van, and the strange encounters they face on the job (like the “toolbelt factor” at play in an office building), we are closest to the original show. Whatever the case, this is a show that feels like too many cooks spoiling the plot, and a show that isn’t confident in itself reverting to having someone step on a rake whenever we aren’t sure what else to do.
Something still makes me wish I could like this more, but I don’t think this has the wheels to get through enough episodes to ground itself, and I don’t know that it would anyway. We’ve shot past our target decade here, and landed somewhere nearer Gilligan’s Island. Then again, even only with ABC as our focus, Happy Endings is suffering, and The Neighbors made it through a full season, so what do I know?
Jack Shea (Kyle Bornheimer) has never had much luck when it comes to his career. In the Police Academy, he accidentally shot himself. In the Army, he accidentally shot someone else. And seminary school didn’t work out so well when he started suggesting “punch ups” for the Bible.
But Jack is forced to put his constantly-changing dreams on hold when his dad Tony (JK Simmons), has a heart attack and is forced to retire from his hometown handyman business. Now, armed with big dreams, power tools and a slacker assistant, Darren (Edi Gathegi), Jack becomes the new Mr. Jiffy-Fix.
But it’s not easy: Jack has a tendency to bite off more than he can chew and it doesn’t help that his dad is always looking over his shoulder. But if Jack can find his sea legs, with a little help from his family including his forceful and outspoken Aunt Terry (Leah Remini), his teenage cousin, Mason (Johnny Pemberton), and Darren’s flrty sister, Stitch (Danielle Nicolet) he just might finally make his father proud.
From Joshua Sternin and J.R. Ventimilia (That ‘70s Show, Rio), Bobby Bowman (Raising Hope, My Name Is Earl) and Mark Gordon (Grey’s Anatomy, Criminal Minds) comes a new ensemble comedy about trying to find your true calling, right at home.