Fox's "Back to You" is back to TV comedy basics: multiple cameras, live audiences but, mostly, laughs.
The sitcom, set in a local television newsroom in Pittsburgh, boasts the return of two of the most successful and respected comedic performers in the genre: Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton. The show is steeped in the same comedy tradition as Grammer's former show "Frasier" and Heaton's "Everybody Loves Raymond" -- both of which seem to run nearly 24/7 across the country in syndication.
"I think you could make a pretty good argument that Kelsey is the best actor that has ever done this form," said co-creator and executive producer Steve Levitan, who, along with Christopher Lloyd, conceived of and wrote the lead role especially for Grammer. "For two decades he played Frasier and kept him an interesting and fresh character. Who has done better than him?"
In "Back to You" (8 p.m. Wednesday), Grammer is Chuck Darling, an aging cad who has suffered a major career setback. After reaching the heights of local news in Los Angeles, an untimely outburst posted on the Web causes him to tumble back down the ladder of success. He finds himself back at the mid-market Pittsburgh station and reunited with an old flame and co-anchor, played by Heaton.
"I take great pride in his name, but I didn't come up with it," said Grammer about playing Chuck Darling. "Ah, Peter Pan, he's one of the Darling children that doesn't want to grow up. He'll go kicking and screaming into manhood, but I think he'll make a good man someday."
After some television producing and even a stint in off-Broadway theater over the last couple of years, Heaton was persuadedto return to sitcoms by Grammer and by Levitan and Lloyd's sharp and witty script. Before "Back to You," she'd fielded dozens of sitcom offers, but they just weren't that funny to her.
"After nine years of doing a show like 'Raymond,' it was hard to find something that compares," Heaton said. She described her character, Kelly Carr, this way: "She has a really big heart, but she's pretty uptight. She has as big an ego as Chuck, but she tries to temper it."
Her character has been raising a daughter on her own over the last decade. "She's had a responsibility he's never had," Heaton said. "And as a woman newscaster, she's no spring chicken and carries a certain amount of pressure on how she looks -- something I can relate to."
Veteran film and television character actor Fred Willard plays a dingy sportscaster. Willard, while being the oldest cast member at 68, may be its most popular among young people, thanks to his celebrated comedic work in films such as "Waiting for Guffman," "Best in Show" and "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy."
"He's just one of those guys who reads the phone book and you start to laugh," said Levitan, whose first job out of college was as a television news reporter and morning anchor for a station in Madison, Wis.
Unlike most of the rather small crop of freshman comedies that sprouted between the network scheduling cracks left by drama and reality programming, "Back to You" is a multi-camera -- as opposed to a single-camera -- show. Multi-cameras such as CBS' "Two and a Half Men" are shot before a studio audience and often have the feel of theater, while single-cameras such as "30 Rock" have the hip and freer style of a movie.
For decades, multi-camera shows dominated the networks' prime-time lineup, but overexposure and sagging writing quality have made it especially tough for today's newcomers to find an audience. But the show's co-creators, who between them have worked on such multi-camera hits as "Golden Girls," "Frasier" and "Just Shoot Me," swear by the power of the traditional form.
"I grew up watching 'Dick Van Dyke,' 'Mary Tyler Moore' and 'Cheers,' " Levitan said. "Those shows had a profound effect on me. They were incredibly meaningful, and I refuse to believe that human nature has changed that much. People still like to laugh."