When it comes to family sitcoms, I sense gloom but not doom. That is, the genre is in a lull right now: many shows doing nothing new, not providing our minimum nightly requirement of laughs. But I also don't think reality shows like Are You Hot? and Married by America, along with the 384 other leer-'n'-smirk ''unscripted'' series coming up, are going to drive Harvard grads out of the sitcom factory and into the fast-food industry, either.
Shows such as ABC's 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter and According to Jim relied upon their male marquee stars for initial viewer lure, but it's the meshing of the supporting cast and the quality of the jokes that determine how long you'll watch. If I prefer John Ritter in 8 Simple Rules to Jim Belushi in Jim, it's not because of any residual affection for Three's Company -- one of those shows that has passed into the Canon of Camp, along with Day-Glo piffle like The Brady Bunch. No, it's that I find Ritter's performance -- as a father besieged by a pop culture he no longer understands -- to be, within the confines of the series' dumb-dad punchlines, rousingly substantial. Ritter throws himself into arguing over missed curfews and the exposed thong lines of his eldest daughter, the effectively appalling Bridget (Kaley Cuoco).
Meanwhile, Belushi swaggers through Jim as though the script was something his macho-dolt character would use as bathroom tissue -- the star signals that he knows the jokes are bad by acting like he's winging the whole series. (It's also striking that both characters' wives, played respectively by Katey Sagal and Courtney Thorne-Smith, do little more than react soothingly or contemptuously to their spouses.)
Malcolm in the Middle was probably the last family sitcom that did anything new with the format, nearly flattening its characters to two dimensions without forsaking their occasional comic poignance. (It's currently grappling with star Frankie Muniz's sprouting adolescence and a tiresome repetition of plot ideas -- I mean, how many more crude pranks can Malcolm's fiendish brother Reese pull without turning into Wile E. Coyote?) Fox recently tried to cross Malcolm with The Wonder Years and came up with the ugly, pointless Oliver Beene.
And speaking of Wonder Years, its narrator, Daniel Stern, stars in ABC's latest fam-com, Regular Joe, an all-too-regular show in which he's the Joe, a New York hardware-store owner. Stern, supported worthily by Judd Hirsch as his frugal father and John Francis Daley (who's beanpole tall since his Freaks and Geeks days) as his son, cannot redeem the kind of tired exchanges that have made American Idol what it is today:
Hirsch: ''When I was growing up -- ''
Stern: ''Yeah, yeah, yeah -- when you were growing up, everybody shared a tooth!''
A much better new show is Fox's The Pitts. It stars Dylan Baker as Bob Pitt, a suburban dad and ludicrously cheerful fellow who runs one of those mailbox-and-postage stores with his wife, Liz (Kellie Waymire). This self-described ''unlucky'' family also contains a devilish son, Petey (David Henrie) -- and I mean that literally; the pilot's opening scene is Petey's exorcism -- and a rare nice teen daughter named Faith (Lizzy Caplan) who says, ''Here, let me help you with that bile.''
Like Malcolm, The Pitts has a cartoonish quality, and why shouldn't it? It was created by two Simpsons vets, Mike Scully and Julie Thacker-Scully; Baker's Bob is Ned Flanders come to life, minus the religiosity. The show is blithely unreal -- a used Volkswagen Bug bought for Faith curls its front bumper into a smile and talks to its new owner. ''I don't want a haunted car!'' wails Faith. ''I already own a haunted cello!'' I'm a sucker for non sequitur jokes like that, as well as Baker's peppy delivery of corny ones such as (uttered while bringing in the mail), ''Bills, bills, bills! We keep getting Bill's mail!''
While it is impossible to forgive Fox for never committing to the wonderful Andy Richter Controls the Universe, we must not hold that against The Pitts. For anyone who's seen Baker as the oppressive pedophile in Todd Solondz's 1998 film Happiness, his turn as a wacky optimist only adds to The Pitts' unsettling but undeniable pleasure. All this, plus a rockin' little theme song by NRBQ. I'll take that over reality any day. 8 Simple Rules: B- Jim: C- Regular Joe: C- The Pitts: B