Here’s the latest from the crossroads of faith, media & culture: 03/19/21

What makes a sitcom a classic? As a writer myself and as someone who just loves well-crafted TV series, I have a particular place in my for finely-honed sitcoms that succeed at causing me to at once laugh out loud and feel a lump in my throat because the characters and situations touch on subjects that are real and sometimes even profound. The list of such classic television comedies that actually accomplish that is relatively short and, IMHO, includes the likes of All in the Family, The Big Bang Theory, Cheers, Everybody Loves Raymond, Frasier, The Honeymooners, M*A*S*H, Mom and Young Sheldon. All of those shows feature believable characters that you come to actually care about and writing that moves seemingly effortlessly from hysterically funny to truly moving. There’s a genuine art to those shows.

Today’s post looks at a new sitcom debuting today with a shot at making it into such company and two series on the list. One is currently airing and set to depart at the end of the season. The other is being prepped for a reboot. I have thoughts about all three.

Country Comfort, dropping today on Netflix, is a contender. Surprisingly. Because, frankly, I was expecting a fairly rote production that, maybe, would earn a few points for at least trying to reach out flyover audiences who are under-served in today’s media landscape. Anyway, more of my take on the show follows the synopsis and trailer below.

Synopsis: When her career and personal life get derailed, an aspiring young country singer named Bailey (Katharine McPhee) takes a job as a nanny for a rugged cowboy named Beau (Eddie Cibrian) and his five children. With a never-give up attitude and loads of Southern charm, this newbie-nanny is able to navigate the family dynamics and be the mother figure they’ve been missing. To her surprise, Bailey also gets the band she’s been missing in this musically talented family who help get her back on the road to stardom.

Cast: Katharine McPhee, Eddie Cibrian, Ricardo Hurtado, Jamie Martin Mann, Griffin McIntyre, Shiloh Verrico, Pyper Braun, Eric Balfour and Janet Varney/Creator-Showrunner-Executive Producer: Caryn Lucas

The show is being described as The Nanny meets Full House but I think that actually undersells it. The Nanny, a show Lucas executive produced for CBS in the late nineties and had a healthy six season run has a certain surface similarity to Country Comfort in that both shows actually feature a nanny as the main character. But The Nanny rarely, if ever, seemed to even attempt much in the way of emotional resonance – with many of the laughs relying on star Fran Drescher’s nasal twang to land at all. Full House, meanwhile, is little more than The Brady Bunch with a studio audience. Both of those shows were, of course, hugely successful but they were also pretty standard sitcom fare.

Country Comfort does take a shot at mixing laughs with genuine heart and, for the most part, actually succeeds at it. McPhee, though just a runner-up on the fifth season of American Idol, has become one of the most enduring stars of the show. A very good singer, she’s also proven her acting chops on series like NBC”s Broadway-themed Smash and Scorpion which was CBS’ attempt to graft The Big Bang Theory onto an A-Team-style action hour. Like Smash, the Partridge Family-meets-well, The Nanny and Full House concept of Country Comfort gives her the opportunity to belt out songs.

The show begins as Bailey (McPhee), on the heels of being thrown out of a band and dumped by her boyfriend on the same day, stumbles into the life of a widowed rancher (Eddie Cibrian) seeking to hire a nanny to help with his five kids who are still struggling to recover from the death of their mother a couple of years earlier. The fact that everyone in the group seems to be into music suggests where the show could go.

The show’s funny lines actually land and produce laughs and the emotional scenes, particularly involving McPhee’s with one of the grieving daughters, work too. Also, the fact that one of the kids subtly wears a cross and American flag is seen hanging on a wall with, at least in the pilot, no mockery ensuing is a nice sign that traditional values are being treated with respect.

So, likable characters, funny lines and warmth are the ingredients of great sitcoms and Country Comfort checks all those boxes. Whether they gel to produce a classic series like the ones listed above remains to be seen. But the show definitely has a shot and I plan on watching more episodes which, as I indicated, surprises me.  My only suggestions are to keep up the good writing of the pilot and let these characters grow.

Aside from that, my one minor criticism is that I’m a fan of TV opening themes if ever a show called out for one (sung by McPhee, of course) it’s this one. Even Netflix’ enjoyable food-themed reality show Somebody Feed Phil has a snazzy song. So, this show certainly deserves – and would benefit – from one. After all, every time  catchy theme plays in your mind is kinda like a free promo.

Overall though, while it’s not up there with the greats yet (that takes time), Country Comfort is Recommended as a refreshingly unpretentious and heartfelt TV comedy.
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Allison Janney laments the demise of Mom. That portion of the interview starts at 8:58 mark. I agree with Janney that the long-running show is a TV landmark for its humorous-but-humane depiction of people struggling to overcome addictions and that it’s a real shame to see it coming to an end prematurely. I don’t, however, agree with her assessment as to why CBS is choosing not to pick it up for a ninth season. More on that after the clip.

With all due respect to Ms. Janney, who like the rest of the cast has delivered a consistently stellar performance on Mom, I doubt CBS is dropping the show over money issues. The sad fact is the show was hit hard by the sudden departure of her co-star Anna Faris in the pivotal role of her daughter Christi.  When production resumed this season, there was an undeniable hole that left the ensemble struggling without a character who played a key part in making the show work. Even the title was rendered a bit meaningless.
That’s said, I agree that it’s not time to end the show. While it would be great if Faris would return, some classic shows have reinvented themselves, found new life and gone on for years after the loss of a key character. That list includes the likes of Cheers, M*A*S*H and NYPD Blue. What those shows did was they created new interesting characters to fill the void and propel the story forward. They didn’t just go on like nothing had happened.
Back in November, I offered my thoughts on how the show could creatively move forward. I think it could still work so, as a sincere suggestion, here it is (slightly tweaked) again.

We learn in Season 9/Episode 1 that Christy, moving forward as a lawyer, has moved  away to live with, reconcile with and assist her estranged daughter and Violet (Sadie Calvano), now herself an unwed mother. It would be nice if Faris could at least be coaxed into some nice phone chat scenes.

Meanwhile, the character of Patty (Kate Micucci), the single mother who Bonnie Plunkett (aka the title character played by Allison Janney)  agreed to become an AA sponsor of in Season 7, suddenly shows up at the apartment with her child and in desperate need of a place to stay. This, of course, is much to the chagrin of Bonnie’s husband Adam (William Fichtner) who was kinda enjoying the empty nest.

All in all, the scenario would provide a hopeful ending to Christy’s story, maintain the validity of the show’s title and flow naturally from previously-established story points while opening up new story possibilities that take full advantage of the series’ ability to artfully balance laugh out loud comedy with genuine heart.

You’re welcome, CBS.
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On an even-more grandiose scale, here’s my idea for that Paramount+ Frasier reboot. I first posted about this when the concept of revisiting the character began bubbling up in 2018 and have revised and, I think, improved it since. I know what you’re thinking. I’m a man with too much time on his hands but, what can I say? I find this kind of stuff enjoyable. More after the video.

So, I believe and hope the Frasier reboot that is actually in the works will be great and build on the iconic character’s impressive pedigree. But, for the record, I honestly think my idea would work too as it would capture the heart of the original series while moving the character forward in a new direction. The concept would also serve as a sort of tribute to the character of Martin Crane and the late actor who portrayed him John Mahoney.

The Frasier Crane Mysteries/Concept by John W. Kennedy
Based on the Classic Character from Cheers & Frasier

Log Line: Frasier meets Monk – A one-hour comedic mystery drama

Concept: Widowed after finally finding true love with Charlotte (the woman he followed to Chicago in the 2004 final episode of Frasier), a depressed Dr. Frasier Crane returns to Seattle where his 32-year-old son Frederick is now a Seattle P.D. detective working out of the same precinct of his late grandfather Martin and living in the same condo Frasier owns and shared with Martin for eleven years.

As Frasier crashes with his son and temporarily fills in for his brother Niles (who now successfully hosts a KACL radio show in Frasier’s old time period), he becomes drawn into a murder case his son is investigating. As it turns out, Frasier, in a bid for his father’s approval, completed a forensic psychiatry fellowship while studying at Harvard. He also has a knack for using his well-honed listening skills and knowledge of human behavior to solve mysteries and trip up smug killers.

As the pilot episode ends, Frasier is hired on as a consultant to Frederick’s squad.

 Characters

Dr. Frasier Crane
The character we know and love from two classic sitcoms moves into the drama arena (a la Lou Grant).  Now, a forensic psychiatrist working with his detective son, he hopes to rebuild their relationship while often becoming more involved in police investigations than his job description calls for.

Det. Frederick Crane
Frasier’s allergy-ridden, half-Jewish son (on his mother Lilith’s side) inherited his conservative convictions and love of law and justice from his grandfather but overall social awkwardness from his father and uncle. Despite his overall conservatism, and driven by the memory of once being falsely accused of cheating after winning the National Spelling Bee, he’s currently studying to be a defense lawyer. He lives with Max, his beloved German shepherd/cowardly K9 cop partner.

Lt. Karen Copeland
The no-nonsense head of the investigative unit Frederick and Frasier work under. She’s about Frasier’s age and has fond memories of Martin who was something of a mentor to her when she was young and struggling to make it in a male-dominated profession. Her police officer husband was killed in the line of duty ten years ago. She believes hard evidence and leg work – not “pop psychology” – are the keys to solving crime.  Still, she hates to admit just how often Frasier is right. A Patricia Heaton type.

Det. Tyler Tucker
Frederick’s confident, streetwise African-American partner is about his age. Despite their different backgrounds (Tyler, the son of a single mother, grew up in the rough section of town), they are best friends.

Note: The concept provides ample opportunity for characters from Frasier (especially Niles, Daphne, Roz and Lilith) to organically recur.

The Episodes

  1. “Frame of Mind”
    While subbing for Niles on his radio show, Frasier unwittingly becomes the alibi for his guest, a renowned psychiatrist who murders a colleague threatening to expose his plagiarism and then pins the crime on a severely disturbed patient – who cooperates by confessing.
  1. “A Mime is a Terrible Thing to Waste”
    A street mime who often performed in front of Frasier and Frederick’s apartment is shot dead with a silencer.
  1. “Method Actor”
    A movie star takes his preparation for the role of a serial killer more than a bit too far.
  1. “Final Draft”
    A world-famous, but fading, mystery novelist steals his protégé’s ingenious plot twist — which he actually uses to do in the young writer.
  1. “How to Frame a Guilty Man”
    Frederick suspects, but can’t prove, that a popular TV anchor killed his wife – until a detective with a vendetta against the newsman plants evidence against him.
  1. “Murder in Retrograde”
    A TV psychic murders the executive who was about to cancel his show – and then leads police to the supposed killer.
  1. “Her Worst Nightmare”
    A shock jock’s obsessed groupie literally dreams of his girlfriend’s murder – as it happens.  When she reports her dream to the cops, she becomes the prime suspect.    
  1. “Abra-Cadaver”
    A magician commits murder while apparently on stage doing a show.
  1. “The Freudian Slip”
    A super model murders her cheating fiancé then attempts to divert Frederick’s suspicions by seducing him.
  1. “You Have a Friend in Frasier Crane”
    Frasier’s old friend, former KACL station manager Kenny Daly, is charged with killing his ex-wife. His totally implausible alibi: He saw a one-armed man running from the scene of the crime. Frasier believes him.
  1. “Mind Game”
    Frasier is called in to determine whether a TV pitchman’s bizarre behavior after being nailed for killing his wife is result of insanity or a cold-blooded manipulation of the legal system.
  1. “Burying the Hatchets”
    When media mogul – and KACL owner – Ben Hatchet dies in an ironic accident involving a hatchet, he leaves a will that stipulates his fortune will be divided equally by his surviving family members one year after his death.  Suddenly Hatchets are dropping like flies — victims of bizarre “accidents.”
  1. “The Crepes of Wrath”
    A celebrity chef murders a protégé who begins outshining the master.
  1. “It’s a Jingle Out There”
    A famed ad man (suggested guest Tony Shalhoub) in Seattle on a book tour becomes the sole witness to a murder that apparently never happened.
  1. “The White Whisperer”
    A racial relations facilitator known as The White Whisperer is brought in to help the team investigate the murder of a controversial African-American studies professor.
  1. “Maris is Missing”
    Frasier accompanies Niles to the Maldives where his brother is being asked to identify the corpse of his fugitive ex-wife Maris following an apparent murder at sea. But, when it turns out the body isn’t hers, the question becomes who is the victim and where is Maris? 
    Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11
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