CBS returns to familiar faces and ideas with the multi-camera sitcoms 'Man With a Plan' and 'The Great Indoors'

In the future, if there is one, students at the College of the Matrix or the University of the Deep Underground Bunker may look back toward present-day television the way we now study Greek or Elizabethan drama. You can imagine the theses: "The Role of the Couch in the 20th Century Situation Comedy" or "How Many Doors? Entrance and Exit in the Multi-Camera Sitcom." Actually, those papers are probably being written somewhere now.

CBS is the great protector, if not yet the sole practitioner, of the multi-camera sitcom, a highly theatrical form that has been with us since the "I Love Lucy" days. After recently putting a toe into the waters of the more naturalistic, more "modern" single-camera comedy —  though those have been around at least since "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" —  with flops like "We Are Men," "The Crazy Ones" and "Angel From Hell," the network has gone back to what it knows.

This week brings two new old-school sitcoms to CBS, "Man With a Plan" starring Matt LeBlanc on Monday and "The Great Indoors" with Joel McHale on Thursday. (A third, Kevin James' "Kevin Can Wait," has already premiered and received a full-season order, which will tell you something about the limited power of negative reviews.)

Neither is groundbreaking or particularly exciting; both are quite likable and solidly constructed. (James Burrows, the “Pilot King,” directed the "Man" pilot; Andy Ackerman, whose own directing career runs back to Burrows' "Cheers," helmed "Indoors.) The jokes are good more often than not and rarely embarrassing; the casts seem to enjoy one another’s  company, creating plausible communities within clearly artificial frameworks.

Created by "That '70s Show" vets Jackie Filgo and Jeff Filgo, "Man With a Plan" features LeBlanc in what is still, for some reason, considered the reliably hilarious position of a man taking care of children. His Adam is a fairly typical middle-class, regular-guy TV dad, less capable than he imagines himself to be, with a smart wife, Andi (Liza Snyder), about to return to work after many years and three children spaced in age but all young enough to need some minding.

It's a job he soon decides is no fun. "All I know is I gave you three perfect babies," Adam tells Andi, "and as far as I can tell you ruined them." Just to be clear, he is the (slightly) dumb, less evolved partner, like his “Friends” character Joey grown up, married, with children.

There are some nice left turns in the dialogue. "I'm worried about kindergarten," Adam's youngest daughter says when he drops her off at school. "Oh, honey," he sweetly replies, "you should be worried. Kids are mean." Less profitably, he tells his pubescent son to "stop touching yourself; you had both hands in your pants moving around down there like you're making origami." There is something groundbreaking in that, I suppose, as there is in digging a hole.

It is arbitrarily set in Pittsburgh.

"The Great Indoors,” is built around Joel McHale, who starred in one of television's most meta-fictional, formally playful, self-aware sitcoms ever, Dan Harmon's "Community." He presents a not dissimilar character here, the hot/cool early middle-aged dude just old enough to be annoyed by a younger generation — which for that matter was also the character he played hosting "The Soup."

McHale plays Jack Gordon, an adventure journalist recalled from the wilds to a desk job when the publication he works for ditches print for the Web. (It doesn't quite follow, but a premise is a premise.) Perhaps as a reward for putting him in charge of kids whose idea of journalism is an online poll for "Best Outdoor Gear for the Zombie Apocalypse," they have cast the great Stephen Fry as his boss. There is also a boss' daughter (Susannah Fielding), who is also his boss, for spiky banter and delayed romance.

The young ones have job titles meant to sound funny to old people — "online content curator" (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), "digital conversation specialist" (Shaun Brown) and a "social influencer" (Christine Ko) who complains, "I got passed over for a promotion again? What do I have to do? I've been here eight weeks." They interview one another about their podcasts for their podcasts.

Out of the gate, the series — which was created by Mike Gibbons, who has a long history in late-night television — relies a little too much on generation-gap jokes, made even gappier by Jack's technological ignorance and aversion to the modern connectosphere. Jack still thinks the way to spread the word about something is to go to Kinko's and make fliers, and thinks the place to meet new people is not on an app but in a bar. (He has been living in the woods, and for all I could tell is still living out of the packed backpack he carries around.)

I would expect this line of humor to calm down a little as the show goes on, if it goes on. In the meantime, the mutual mockery is supportive rather than antagonistic — Jack worries about his team and they worry about him —  which makes the show rather sweet. And at 44, McHale can deliver dialogue clearly while doing push-ups.

It is set in Chicago, more or less arbitrarily.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

Stephen Fry Christopher Mintz-Plasse

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