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Party of Seven 

Dysfunctional family values and Fox’s Grounded for Life.

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Laughter is the mortal enemy of comedy. OK, more specifically, canned laughter is the mortal enemy of comedy.

Television networks use obnoxious pre-recorded laughter to “sweeten” sitcoms all the time, whether they’re actually filmed in front of those fabled “live studio audiences” or not. It also doesn’t matter if the material is actually laugh-worthy. Only three out of 10 sitcoms on TV at this very moment are consistently funny, but that tinny, braying Audience X from the other side of limbo thinks they’re all equally hysterical at unnervingly rhythmic intervals. If I were a comedy writer, I’d love that kind of guarantee; because I’m a Serious Journalist, I must criticize it.

Comedy Central recently began running the 44 existing episodes of Sports Night, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s pre-West Wing foray into TV. Unfortunately, as good as the series eventually became before ABC canceled it after a ratings-starved second season, the weekly Comedy Central dose reminds us that the initial episodes were annoying as hell. Why? Because ABC insisted on inserting a laugh track where none was needed, throwing off the show’s verbally dense comedy/drama rhythm method. When the canned laughs were finally phased out, Sports Night was great—too bad no one was watching.

Fox’s new sitcom Grounded for Life (Wednesdays, 7:30 p.m.) may never be considered great—even by Fox standards—but one thing’s certain: The freaking laugh track must go! So must TV critics who are still whining about shows canceled two years ago, incidentally.

John Goodman’s “on-hiatus” Normal, Ohio failed miserably as an attempt to wedge into Fox’s newly rediscovered niche as the Dysfunctional Family Values Network, a canned-laugh-suspended bridge in the gap between unexpected DFV hits Malcolm in the Middle (which uses no laugh track) and Titus (which uses a moderated laugh track to mask the show’s vaguely creepy psychosis). If Grounded for Life doesn’t pick up Normal’s viewer slack, Fox only has that unkillable cockroach of a cartoon The Family Guy left up its programming sleeve. I’m not threatening, I’m just saying.

The premise of Grounded for Life is DFV simple: Early-30s, married-at-18 couple with a 14-year-old daughter and two slightly younger boys want desperately to remain “cool” and “irresponsible,” but are vexed at every turn by the kids, shadowing relatives and reality—sitcom reality, anyway. Someday, I hope to live there.

Sounds like the perfect setup for an “edgy” Fox TV comedy, so what’s Donal Logue doing there? He’s a movie star, ferchrissakes! Besides The Tao of Steve and The Patriot, he’s been in more than 40 major and independent flicks—hell, I met the guy at Slamdance in Park City four years ago. Never expected him to wind up starring in a sitcom, but, then again, I never expected to get paid for watching TV and writing about actors I’ve run into at pretentious film festivals, either. Life’s kinda funny.

Grounded for Life’s kinda funny, too. Once you get past the irritating laugh track, you realize that it doesn’t really need one. It ain’t Malcolm, but it has potential. Logue’s patented smarter-than-he-looks Irish everydude doesn’t jump off the TV screen as easily as he does the movie screen, but his Sean Finnerty is complemented nicely by wife Claudia (Megyn Price, Lateline), brother Eddie (Kevin Corrigan, a ringer for Christopher Walken), daughter Lily (Lynsey Bartilson, Party of Five) and father Walt (character vet Richard Riehle, name a movie or TV series). Minus the generically destructive sons, the ensemble works.

While I usually prefer to avoid violently angry teenage girls (it’s just a good rule of thumb), redheaded rager Lily is already my favorite Grounded character. She could eat those Once & Again brats for brunch. The producers obviously agree, because the plot lines of both this week’s chicken-hurling debut episode and a future airing included on my special preview tape from Carsey-Werner (not to act like a studio-name-dropping TV critic or anything) revolve around the teen terroress, not Sean and Claudia.

That second episode—involving Lily’s fake ID, Internet chat-room espionage and a fake rave at a Yonkers dry cleaner—reaches some genuinely Seinfeldian heights of sitcom absurdity—here’s hoping Grounded for Life staves off cancellation long enough for it to air. If not, Logue’s back to the indie-flick grind, and you’ll be left with yet more of That ’70s Show reruns, Normal, Ohio leftovers, and the inevitable return of The Family Guy.

I’m not threatening, I’m just saying.

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