The cast of "Working Class." (Matthew Welch )
There are two things — at least two things — to like about "Working Class," the first sitcom from CMT. (The letters stand for County Music Television, but there is nothing particularly musical or country about the series, which premieres Friday and is set in an upscale suburb of Chicago.)
The first is its star, big, blond Melissa Peterman, who is already the host of the network's popular "The Singing Bee," and was an extravagant foil to Reba McEntire on "Reba." She plays a wonderful mix of sweetness, resolve, reserve and raunch and holds down her central spot with confident musicality. Peterman is often made to say things only a sitcom writer would make a person say, but if you were to look in on this show just to watch her work, you would not be wasting your time.
The second is that it tries, pretty much, to be what the title promises, a story of someone who works for a living and makes just enough to meet the expected expenses, the sort of person TV nowadays habitually ignores. The premise, which has to be reverse-engineered from the text or read about in news releases, has Peterman's Carli Mitchell moving her three children and tag-along brother into a neighborhood that strains her means to give them a better life. This is not the "Beverly Hillbillies" scenario you might fear — not that I don't love "The Beverly Hillbillies" — but rather something that at its best recalls the better blue-collar comedies of Roseanne Barr and Brett Butler.
Carli frets about health insurance, waters down the milk to make it last, walks through a cloud of spray furniture polish as a cheap alternative to perfume. At the upscale grocery where she clerks, she wonders of the clientele, "How come they get to do yoga and drink fancy coffee in the middle of the day? What about me? What did they do right that I didn't?"
The other aspirational elements of the story are so far unfortunately limited to the hoary, old possibility of Carli's marrying up. She has a crush on a man she later discovers is her boss (Patrick Fabian), and though he has a girlfriend, she is clearly no more than a traffic cone placed to keep the leads apart until creator Jill Cargerman ( "Gary Unmarried") decides it is time for them to cuddle. Delayed gratification, thy name is "a TV series."
As a co-worker and neighbor Ed Asner is the show's other marquee name. It's the Mouthy Old Guy part, and perhaps one of every four gags he's given is funny — "It's entrapment; like when the hippies framed Nixon," is not, though "You can't throw a rock without hitting a hybrid Lexus, although that never stopped me" is. But since every single line he's given is a gag line, he makes it up in volume.
Once thought headed for extinction, the three-camera sitcom is holding on by its nails here and there, and making a small comeback on cable, where it can be tailored to suit viewers already on board and to attract new ones who in the ordinary course of things would not find themselves watching, say, CMT. (Of the broadcast majors, CBS remains the form's one champion.)
It's also a comparatively economical way to fill half an hour of TV space, in this case made more economical by the fact that, while it seems to be "taped in front of a live audience," the laughs are entirely canned. I don't mean that as a criticism; this is only an average situation comedy, but even the great ones have worn that makeup.