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TELEVISION & RADIO | THE FALL TV SEASON

'Married to the Kellys' is, well, corny as Kansas

October 03, 2003|Craig Tomashoff | Special to The Times

In these politically correct times, it isn't easy being a sitcom writer. Where can you go for that guaranteed laugh line when all the traditional easy targets are off-limits? After all, the mere hint of a joke about ethnic minorities, religious icons (except maybe for that cloning guy with the crazy hair) or anyone weighing more than 250 pounds is guaranteed to spark an angry letter-writing campaign.

So where can a show turn for the quick yuk? What group of people can they mock without prompting protesters to pick up their placards? Apparently, according to the first couple of episodes of the new ABC comedy "Married to the Kellys," the answer is simple: Kansans. Yes, those same poor people already weary from jokes about Dorothy and Toto and constant ribbing about a pretentious '70s rock band that stole their state's name, are now fair game for some cheap sitcom laughs.

As a native of the Sunflower State, I suppose I should recuse myself from the remainder of this review. However, I'm going to try to ignore this series' portrait of Kansas City folks as grace-singing, barbecue-fixated "simple folk" and try to follow the advice of my Kansas-born-and-raised mother, who always wants me to find the good in everyone and everything.

How's this? The premise of "Married to the Kellys" is very easy to grasp. New Yorker Tom Wagner (Breckin Meyer) reluctantly agrees to move to Kansas City so his perky wife, Susan (Kiele Sanchez), can be close to her family. So far, so good. There's nothing inherently wrong with a "fish 1,000 miles out of water" comedy. And then, along come Tom's in-laws, and it's Stereotypes on Parade.

Whether it's Susan's relentlessly chipper parents (Nancy Lenehan, Sam Anderson), her snide sister (Emily Rutherfurd) or painfully shy brother (Derek Waters), there aren't any real people here. Just walking punch lines who really enjoy pork steak on the grill. Imagine the scene in "Annie Hall" when Woody Allen meets Diane Keaton's seemingly wholesome Midwestern family stretched into a weekly series and you get the idea.

A few gags about the family's "Waltons"-esque way of saying hello to each and every person in the room or singing grace at dinner go a very long way. And the notion that Susan's family couldn't handle the notion of a man who cooks is so routine that there's not much humor left in the concept.

These gags aren't over-the-top enough to offend the Midwesterners they're making fun of, so the "Married to the Kellys" can't even score points by being outrageous. Instead, giving these stock characters this many routine jokes is as bland as smearing mayonnaise on white bread. (Wouldn't it have been more amusing to twist expectations and make the New Yorker the wholesome guy and the Kansans the open-minded ones?)

Once again, I'm trying hard to be fair and keep my Kansas bias out of this discussion. Instead of chastising the creators of "Married to the Kellys" for resorting to cheap laughs at one group's expense, perhaps it's more helpful to suggest they look for targets that actually deserve some skewering in a sitcom. Arkansans, for instance.

*

'Married to the Kellys'

Where: ABC

When: 8:30 p.m. Fridays; premieres tonight

Rating: The network has rated the show TV-PG-D (may not be suitable for young children, with an advisory for suggestive dialogue).

Breckin Meyer...Tom Wagner

Kiele Sanchez...Susan Wagner

Nancy Lenehan...Sandy Kelly

Emily Rutherfurd...Mary

Josh Braaten...Chris

Derek Waters...Lewis

Sam Anderson...Bill Kelly

Creator/executive producer/writer Tom Hertz. Director Ted Wass.

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