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TBS gives us two good reasons to laugh

The major TV networks have struggled with comedies, but the cable station has winners in My Boys and 10 Items or Less.

By ERIC DEGGANS
Published November 26, 2006


It’s a question that has vexed the industry for years: Where is the next great TV comedy?

Sure, The Office and My Name Is Earl have their fans. But the networks haven’t given us a classic, side-splitting, blow-off-the-barn-doors TV comedy since Everybody Loves Raymond went to the big cancellation grid in the sky.

So how did TBS crack this code?

The signs of the cable network’s success come in a pair of new shows that manage an amazing feat: They are funny at first glance, debuting fully formed, with engaging casts and fresh premises. It took Seinfeld and Cheers a year to find their way back in the day, but TBS’s series hit the ground running — a must in today’s 500-channel universe.

The best of the two is My Boys, a quirky comedy about a female sportswriter struggling to reconcile her need for a romantic relationship with the fact that the only consistent men in her life are a coterie of buddies.

Jordana Spiro (Must Love Dogs) is P.J. Freeman, a cute, single woman living the kind of fantasy life only possible in a situation comedy. She’s got a way cool, spacious apartment in Chicago, a job covering sports for the Sun-Times and a fresh-faced look that makes her seem way too young to have achieved all this.

And because this is a TV fantasy, the guys in P.J.’s life barely notice she’s female and never hit on her. But she has her eye on the newest dude in her circle, a witty fellow sportswriter who can’t handle how P.J. “makes him feel like the chick” in their relationship by being too aggressive and emotionally clueless.

Each episode is framed in a voiceover by P.J. — a move that would feel way too Sex and the City if P.J.’s observations weren’t filled with sports metaphors and male bonding. Creator-executive producer Betsy Thomas (My So-Called Life) uses P.J. as the nexus for an array of influences, from the relationship stuff in Sex and the City, to the guy stuff in Entourage and the sports-as-life-metaphor stuff in Arli$$. She winds up creating something new from the familiar.

Add in crack sidekick Jim Gaffigan as P.J.’s wife-whipped brother, and you’ve got a good launching pad for a fresh comedic voice.

If My Boys is TBS’s familiar buddy comedy, then its second effort, 10 Items or Less, is more like the weird uncle you stay away from at parties.

The show centers on a loser who inherits his father’s grocery store and proceeds to run it into the ground. Its off-kilter, unpredictable energy stems from its process, which involves the actors improvising scenes a la HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm.

This technique works best in moments played for maximum discomfort, as when store owner Leslie Pool cluelessly badgers an employee at a staff meeting into revealing that the dim-witted stock boy fathered her son during a one-night stand after  a company picnic. Later, Pool turns a water stain that looks like Jesus into a customer attraction, and a mega-chain representative (Jennifer Elise Cox, best known as Jan Brady from The Brady Bunch Movie) admits the company wants to buy Pool’s store and flatten it into a parking lot.

Full of empty self-help slogans and a mystifying talent for socially inappropriate remarks, Pool is the creation of John Lehr (Jesse), a writer-performer who gives his alter ego just the right mix of blithe energy and earnest intent.
By the time Pool sees his Jesus shtick crumble thanks to an exploding water main, it’s obvious: TV has a new clueless boss to love — or hate.

The only question is why network TV didn’t pick up on these shows first.

Eric Deggans can be reached at deggans@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8521. See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.

Funny stuff
10 Items or Less debuts at 11 tonight on TBS.
Grade: B+

My Boys debuts at 10 p.m. Tuesday on TBS.
Grade: A-