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REVIEW

Up next: Fred Willard steals the show on Fox

There are many reasons to like the TV news sitcom 'Back to You.' The comic is a top one.

September 19, 2007|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

Let us pause for a moment and give thanks for Fred Willard. I know, I know, Fox's "Back to You" is all about Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton and their Tracy-Hepburn attempt to breathe life back into the sitcom. Which they do, and it is lovely to watch, but Fred Willard is a true comedy veteran, a man who brightens up any scene he's in, from the classic "Fernwood Tonight" to Christopher Guest's feature film "Best in Show."

"We heard it was a sperm bank," says his character, Marsh McGinley, on "Back to You," discussing a colleague's pregnancy. "Never cared for the word 'sperm.' Or 'voilĂ ,' just so you know."

The hilariousness of the line is impossible to describe because you need to see Willard's goofy deadpan face, hear his voice trail off into non sequitur oblivion to understand. That he's back as a regular on a show that looks to be around for a while is proof of a just and balanced universe.

Willard is just one of many reason's "Back to You" is so solid a comedy it seems somehow nostalgic. (They might have called it "As You Like It," but that was taken.) Remember when every other show was a sitcom? The makers of "Back to You" do, because they were there -- writer-producers Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd did time on "Frasier," as did director-producer James Burrows, who goes back to "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," with stops at "Will & Grace," "Friends" and "Taxi."

And it's clear from the moment the show opens that we are in the hands of pros. They may be playing it safe -- Grammer as a blowhard with a heart of gold; who'd have thought? -- but if you're looking for a half-hour of laughs, "Back to You" goes down pretty easy.

Meet Chuck Darling (Grammer), a Pittsburgh news anchor who dared to shoot for the big time only to have an on-air gaffe send him back to where he began -- right next to Kelly Carr (Heaton) the co-anchor who never left. Ah, the television newsroom, so effectively mined in small- and large-screen comedies as diverse as "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "Broadcast News." Here's the striving reporter, Gary Crezyzewski (Ty Burrell); the young and inept news director, Ryan Church (Josh Gad); the sexy weather girl, Montana (Ayda Field); and, of course, the wacky sports guy (Willard).

At the center of it all is Chuck and Kelly's "relationship," a "His Girl Friday" affair of attraction and hatred erupting in rat-a-tat sitcom banter updated for modern times. "I'm going to reveal something to you now that absolutely nobody else knows," Chuck says, trying to make amends. "I didn't step down from that job in L.A. I got fired."

"Everybody knows that," says Kelly. "We all saw it on YouTube."

Later, Kelly reacts to a less-than-sincere compliment: "You even said that with a straight face," she says. "I'm chock-full of Botox," replies Chuck.

Due to plot twists better not revealed, their relationship promises to be more complicated than the standard push me-pull you of a repressed office romance, but they do banter with the best of them. In fact, watching Grammer and Heaton -- and the rest of the cast -- make their way through the first two episodes, I kept thinking, strangely enough, of the Harlem Globetrotters. Like basketball, the situation comedy is a battle plan of timing and teamwork, and "Back to You" moves with the grace and precision of a team not so much trying to win the championship as illuminate the flashy beauty of the game. A team so comfortable in what it's doing it can afford a little personal hot-dogging, like Willard's "voilĂ " line.

It's those grace notes that lift "Back to You" out of predictability. Certainly Grammer is all over this role -- the arrogant uncertainty of Chuck has more than a few echoes of Frasier Crane. Likewise, Heaton's sharp-tongued Kelly could easily go nine rounds with Debra of "Everybody Loves Raymond." But the texture of a sitcom depends on the secondary characters, which is why it is so nice to see Willard getting steady work.

Gad's Ryan is an up-to-date version of the young, dithering news director. "I know I may seem a bit young, but I basically ran the station's Internet division where I guess I impressed a few people," he says in answer to Chuck's question about his age, while every journalist over 35 cringes in recognition. Likewise, Burrell's Gary packs a nice punch as the reporter who will never be an anchor. Which makes Montana, the character not the state, a most unfortunate choice. The role of the sexually aggressive Latina is not only irritatingly stereotypical and more than a little racist (she is the only person of color at WURG), but it leads to unfortunately sophomoric exchanges such as: "The red or the green?" she asks Chuck as she holds up two tiny dresses. "Which makes me look more professional?" "Wear what you're wearing," answers Gary in passing. "That makes you look like a professional."

Montana would have been much funnier had she, say, gone to Yale. But then, we got Fred Willard, and you can't have everything.

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mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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'Back to You'

Where: Fox

When: 8 to 8:30 tonight

Rating: TV-14-DL (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)

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