‘Growing Up Fisher,’ worth seeing
New NBC sitcom has a fresh premise and the cast to pull it off
February 14, 2014
TV is full of good actors whose faces are familiar — perhaps too familiar — but whose names always escape us. These actors are usually skilled at putting across one particular character type, so they never lack for work.
J.K. Simmons, one of the stars of NBC’s new sitcom “Growing Up Fisher,” usually plays an overbearing, opinionated father figure with a comic edge. By giving him an extra dose of vulnerability, this show gives him an extra dose of likability.
But Simmons isn’t the only reason to watch. The improbable but supposedly truth-based premise supports some funny, fresh plotlines.
In the premiere, airing on Sunday, Feb. 23, at 10:30 p.m. (the show’s regular time slot is Tuesdays at 9:30), 11-year-old Henry Fisher (Eli Baker), learns that his father, Mel (Simmons), and mother, Joyce (Jenna Elfman), are getting divorced.
Mel has been blind since childhood but has always refused to let that stop him. A lawyer, he has managed to trick his clients into thinking that he simply has bad eyesight.
Among other unsuitable tasks, he insists on giving his teenage daughter, Katie (Ava Deluca-Verley), driving lessons and cuts down trees with a chainsaw. “Why is he wearing safety glasses?” Katie asks Henry as Mel starts cutting.
“Safety glasses?” says Henry. “That’s what’s wrong with this picture?”
Mel is moving into an apartment and for the first time getting a guide dog, which Henry resents because he thinks it will take his place as Mel’s helper.
Meanwhile, Joyce sees the divorce as a chance for her to get an education and bond with Katie. Joyce starts trying to dress like Katie and saying things like “How mad are we at Madeleine for liking all of Amy’s boyfriend’s status updates?”
An episode-opening graphic says, “The following is inspired by a true story.” According to the press materials, it’s the life of the show’s creator, D.J. Nash. In TV-speak, “inspired by” allows considerable stretching of the truth.
As the adult Henry, Jason Bateman provides off-screen narration. Since the action is taking place in the present or the very recent past, this means that he’s speaking to us from the future. Some references — for example, Katie says that Joyce’s last live concert was a Springsteen gig in the late ’80s — suggest that the writers haven’t quite figured out when the show is set.
Otherwise, the writing is on the money. The various ruses that Mel uses to pass for sighted are clever, even if they’re only “inspired by” real life. For example, in restaurants, Mel’s brother and law partner, Glenn (Bill Fagerbakke), reads aloud menu items that he doesn’t want to order so that Mel will have some choices.
In the first episode, Henry sneaks away from a school trip and finds a perfect apartment for Mel. When Henry gets in trouble and is sent to the principal’s office, the principal tries to sneak away and get the apartment for himself.
In the second episode, Mel and Glenn decide they have to tell their best client that Mel is blind. Meanwhile, when Henry takes Mel’s guide dog for a walk while wearing sunglasses, he gets a lot of wanted but unwarranted attention from a cute 14-year-old girl. He can’t decide how far to let the deception go.
Joyce’s subplots, revolving around her efforts to reinvent herself and be friends with Katie, are typical sitcom subject matter. For example, she starts hanging around with a hip girl from community college who persuades Katie that seeing Springsteen in the ’80s was pretty cool.
“Katie and I are on the express train to bestie town!” Joyce tells Mel, adding immediately, “Don’t tell her I said that.”
Although Jenna Elfman’s well-honed sitcom skills help sell these scenes, the high points of the show are about Mel’s blindness.
Each of the two episodes provided for review end with a longish montage over which the adult Henry tells us the lessons he learned. Fortunately, both episodes have enough edge to balance the sweetness.
Sitcom viewers are used to gagging when hearing narration like “Sometimes, the tough moments in life often make way for greater things than you could possibly imagine.” The fact that “Growing Up Fisher” can pull this off means it’s worth watching.
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