Kevin Dillon, left, Rhys Darby and David Hornsby star in "How to Be… (Greg Gayne / CBS )
"I am one of the last of my kind," says etiquette columnist Andrew Carlson (David Hornsby) at the very top of "How to Be a Gentleman," a new series from CBS, where all comedies are multi-camera comedies, as in days of old, when "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" ruled the air. "I open the door for ladies, but I am not a doorman ... I put out cigarettes, but I am not a cigarette putter-out man."
What Andrew is is a throwback, an etiquette columnist at a magazine that under new ownership is downgrading from GQ to Maxim. "They want to expand the readership by targeting people who don't read," says editor Dave Foley, who had thought briefly of resisting, "but then I remembered I'm 50. So I decided I'm actually very, very excited about the new direction."
Created by Hornsby ("It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia"), the series, which premieres Thursday, is based on John Bridges' 1998 "How to Be a Gentleman: A Contemporary Guide to Common Courtesy" — not some comical takedown of modern manners but an actual book of etiquette. Still, the word "gentleman" itself is nowadays difficult to utter without at least a hint of irony, and to judge by the pilot, this will be more of a show about bending rules than living by them.
"You're fussy, you talk weird and you dress like a ship's captain," sister Janet, played by Mary Lynn Rajskub, tells him; it's as if he had grown up with Niles Crane as a role model. Charged with writing copy that will appeal to readers "in their mid- to late 30s acting like they're 15," he follows a series of plot points that leads him to Kevin Dillon's Bert Lansing, the old high school torturer who is about to become his friend and guide to the lower circles of modern culture and a less refined yet more active way of being.
Snob and slob, they could not be more of a Felix and Oscar were Neil Simon chained to a chair in the writers room. But that is an armature that will be reused until the sun explodes; indeed, it's the template for the network's biggest comedy, "Two and a Half Men," both in its new and classic flavors, and for its other new fall sitcom, "2 Broke Girls," as well.
I've watched the pilot possibly too many times not to notice how the parts have been glued together and the jokes teed up, but the performances are good. Hornsby's might be the least of them, but he's surrounded himself with what strikes me as a sort of alt-TV supergroup. As on "Entourage," Dillon pulls the focus toward himself; he's a cartoon but recognizably human underneath, and funny in a whole-body sort of way. At the very least, this is the show that has kept Rhys Darby, who was manager Murray on "Flight of the Conchords," on American television; as Andrew's cowed but cheerful brother-in-law, he provides the random weirdness that keeps the show from becoming too schematic. And there's that New Zealand accent:
"I love how you say words, Mike," Nancy Lenehan, as Andrew's mother, tells him. "Oh, remember the time you said 'chimichanga.'"
"We laughed." And I did, too, then.