Thursday, March 27, 2014

'Surviving Jack' Should Survive FOX's Sitcom Cauldron

And you thought Elliot Stabler was tough on his kids!

First and most wonderful, it's great to see Christopher Meloni back on prime time again, as he'll be with the premiere of the half-hour comedy Surviving Jack at 9:30 EST Thursday (March 27) on FOX. And not in some weird arc as a 500-year-old vampire on True Blood, either.
Even his son's friends snap to Jack's orders. (FOX photo)

Between Oz and, of course, Law & Order: SVU, it's almost hard to remember a time when Meloni wasn't coming into our living rooms with new calamities every week. And though sometimes it feels like every station in the channel guide carries reruns of his 12 seasons as alpha-male, sex-crimes Detective Stabler on SVU, somehow it's not the same. Prime time just seems right when Chris Meloni is part of it.

The big question, naturally, is, how long will he remain part of it? FOX is notoriously tough on its non-"Animation Domination" sitcoms, although the network's comedies that revolve around wildly unconventional notions of parenting (Raising Hope, Dads) appear to have a slightly better chance of survival. Surviving Jack fits neatly into that pocket, although it is based on the Justin Halpern autobiography I Suck at Girls; given the dismal audience response to his first book-to-sitcom conversion, $#*! My Dad Says on CBS, Halpern's track record is in need of improving.

Meloni should help accomplish that task in the role of Jack Dunlevy, a blunt, no-BS oncologist who clearly missed the class on Bedside Manner in med school. He has poured himself into his practice for years, getting home just in time to yell at his kids, kiss the missus and go to bed. But when his wife, Joanne (Rachael Harris, Suits), makes the big decision to enter law school, Jack agrees to cut back on his hours and assume the primary parent role. No problem: he'll just run the house like an ex-military man – which, indeed, he is.

Be afraid, kids. Be very afraid.

Surviving Jack uses the storytelling platform of an off-camera narrator reflecting on his weird coming-of-age years, a device that's been used since before The Wonder Years and seems to be coming around again in series like The Goldbergs and the new Growing Up Fisher (which, ironically, stars Meloni's Oz and SVU co-star, Detroit native J.K. Simmons). Jack is set in 1991, which I think means young Hollywood has reached the age where the early '90s counts as nostalgia.

I didn't care much for Harris, who seemed to be plucked from the Rent-a-TV-Wife pile and added little to the proceedings. And daughter Rachel (Claudia Lee) just didn't have much to do in the two episodes I watched, maybe because Halpern is writing the story through his eyes. (In an aside perhaps only I find interesting, it seems strange they would hire an actress named Rachael and not change the name of the daughter in the cast. Must have made for some very confusing first rehearsals.)

However, I instantly liked Connor Buckley, Deception), in the role of Jack's son, Frankie. He provides a splendid target for his father's insensitive barbs, combining just the right mix of teenage insecurity and mounting testosterone. He's becoming a man while Jack is learning to become a dad, and the road to maturity for both is not without some major potholes.

TV is nothing if not a copycat medium, and when you have so many growing-pains sitcoms emerging at the same time the difference is going to be the actor in the big chair. Meloni has the chops and the aura to make Jack crackle. Let's face it: after a dozen years of watching him as Stabler it's going to be difficult to separate him from that role in our minds, and at times it feels like Jack's talking to Frankie like Elliot is interrogating a perp. But that could work to the show's benefit. We like the familiar, and Meloni – who's also making his mark on the big screen in films like last year's Man of Steel and 42 and the upcoming Sin City: A Dame to Kill For – is nothing if not a comfortable presence.

The show's got a cushy opening-night spot behind American Idol, which, despite plummeting ratings, remains the network's best location for audience sampling and indicates FOX's faith in the series. I'm going to step out on faith of its potential and give Surviving Jack 7 out of 10 clicks. And if you're a Chris Meloni fan (as I am), I invite you to read "What's Alan Watching?"TV critic Alan Sepinwall's fine interview with the actor that appeared online this week.

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