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Sitcom aims for a higher `Class'

This ensemble show just might be maturing, and isn't Yonk Allen a really great name?

March 04, 2007|Jon Caramanica | Special to The Times

UP against, say, NBC's Thursday night comedy lineup -- yes, even "Scrubs" -- "The Class" is innocuous, harmless television. Centered on the activities of seven Philadelphia friends brought together by a third-grade class reunion, it's an archetypal Gen-X ensemble comedy -- people make out, people fret about whom they're making out with, people make out anyway.

In the structure, there's no sense of adventure, no risk. The class-reunion conceit could have been clever, presenting opportunities for flashbacks or for characters to explore their growth over the years. By and large, though, "The Class" has more modest aspirations, which means it has to work harder, subsurface, to wring laughs from familiar tropes.

Early episodes of the show (CBS, 8:30 p.m. Monday), which debuted in September and is the brainchild of David Crane ("Friends") and Jeffrey Klarik ("Mad About You"), were humble, often rough, as if a regional theater troupe were being hammered into leftover scripts from late-era "Friends." In recent weeks, though, the show's been displaying flares of emotional intelligence -- suddenly the characters who felt shoehorned into the same space have been fusing new bonds. Credible kissing ensues.

At least sometimes. Ethan Haas (Jason Ritter) -- he arranged the reunion for his fiancee, who then dumps him -- is meant to be the show's centerpiece, but he's become its most wooden character. Forever wearing uncomfortably tight V-neck sweaters, he looks as if he's been vacuum-packed. If he'd just exhale, maybe he could emote. All season, there's been buildup toward an attraction with Kat (Lizzy Caplan), an irascible former classmate who inexplicably became his best friend after the reunion, but only in fact, not steam.

Instead, momentum has been swiped by the show's least likely lothario: Richie Velch (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), as squeamish as his name, given to ratty clothes and posture that collapses in on itself. He's a warm dweeb, and he finds his match in Lina (Heather Goldenhersh), Kat's sister, whom he runs over with his car, consigning her to a wheelchair for more than half the season. Broad, obvious gags aside, Ferguson, best known for theater work ("The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee"), is a find. His timing is sharp, and his awkwardness is palpable without being repellent. He could have remained a punch line, as he was in the first few episodes, but as he grew more confident with Lina (and split from his wife, Fern, played by Sara Gilbert), he became the show's most kinetic presence.

In an ensemble cast such as this, even just a couple of standouts are cause for celebration. Ironically, the show's other bright light isn't one of the original classmates. Meathead ex-football star Yonk Allen (David Keith), in possession of one of the great current sitcom character names, is the husband of Nicole (Andrea Anders), who is a classmate, albeit one who hasn't found full voice. Broad-shouldered and routinely draped in unflattering, thigh-length leather coats, he's meant to be testosterone incarnate, without the aggression. To Yonk, everyone's a potential scrimmage partner -- he calls puny Richie "Red," as if he were a swarthy character from a '40s pulp novel -- but his inflated sense of self and easy dismissal of everyone around him, including his wife, are never grotesque or rude. He's an oaf, and a successful one.

Despite its temperate disposition, "The Class" has not been without turmoil. A few weeks ago, one of the original eight classmates, TV reporter Holly Ellenbogen Pearl (Lucy Punch), was wiped clean from the show, including from its website. (Her ambiguously gay husband, Perry [Sam Harris], remained a regular.) Additionally, a promising plotline involving Kyle (Sean Maguire) and his hunky boyfriend, Aaron, fizzled when the latter mysteriously went on a long trip, leaving Kyle free to assist Ethan with his romantic conundrums. The boyfriend reappears fleetingly in Monday's season finale, which may end up being the series finale, because CBS hasn't committed to a second season. On a more complex show, with flashier gimmicks, these faux pas might have slipped by. But on a show this small, for better and worse, every detail counts.

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