Wednesday, March 08, 2006

"Sons & Daughters" might be the worthy heir of "Arrested Development"

The Lion King argues that there's a circle of life. The death of every noble cartoon lion makes room for others to take their place, leading to the birth of future cartoon lion cubs, and so on.

What applies to cartoon lions applies to network comedies. Instead of mourning the loss of Arrested Development, I recalled the good times. Given the shaky ratings and the fickleness of TV networks, we were lucky that the Bluths gave us three of the best years of our lives. The show was Fox's gift to television viewers. We should be grateful.

Its passing was part of the circle of manipulative prime-time scheduling. I hoped that another would be born to take its place.

Enter Sons & Daughters. I've rarely been so entertained by the first two episodes of a series, particularly one that doesn't feature characters named Trishelle, Coral or Aneesa.

The show is about an eccentric extended family, centered on a Steve Carrell look-alike named Cameron. An elaborate chain of stepfathers, stepmothers and half-siblings round out the mix. In the opening scenes, Cameron's stepfather Wendal informs him that he's considering separating from Cameron's mother. In a lapse of judgment, Cameron informs his sister, but their conversation is overheard by Cameron's gawky, highly adult 13-year-old niece.

This sets in motion a chain of gossip that unleashes the dogs of hell.

The show is frank. The characters, including the kids, talk about sex like actual adults, and they spend much of the first two episodes on this subject. They are painfully, caustically funny conversations, not a series of horndog punchlines. I don't know if I've seen a network show -- maybe not even an HBO show -- where the everyday implications of sex are so unblinkingly, straightforwardly discussed. The gawky 13-year-old tells her sexually frustrated mom that she couldn't imagine having a marriage that didn't include great sex; the family matriarch wields emotional power by reminding sixtysomething Wendal of all the great sex they've had; a couple seeks arousal via fantasies that includes sex on a bus full of blind old people, and sex on a pirate ship. Not particularly dirty, not shocking, and all very funny and believable.

Here's what impresses me about the show: it incorporates Arrested Development's screwball sensibilities and off-kilter dialogue, but instead of A.D.'s high-wire farce (which, don't get me wrong, was a real achievement) Sons & Daughters stays grounded. The writers and actors place a higher priority on keeping the characters real. They do bad things, then feel bad about them; they do nice things, then feel good about themselves. No one's out to be cruel, but sometimes things happen. Words have a way of popping out, and someone has to clean up the mess.

I'm worried that I'm making Sons & Daughters sound like Ordinary People. That is not the case. I laughed at the show about as much as I've laughed at any network show, including A.D. It's a very funny program, which has the added virtue of portraying its characters honestly.

There's no way to tell how this will play out. Maybe the first two episodes are the best ones; maybe there's no way a half-hour sitcom can pull off the feat of incorporating 16 or so characters and maintain a very tricky tone.

Based on last night, I'm going to fire up Tivo and hope for the best. This show has potential to be very, very good. It airs on Tuesdays at 9 on ABC.

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