When Fox first announced "Grounded for Life" (premiering tonight at 8:30 p.m.), I thought it was about a family "grounded" in dysfunction. After seeing umpteen previews on Fox, I realized it could also mean "grounded" as in "You're grounded -- for life!"
After watching the premiere and an additional episode, I'm still not sure how the creators intend the title to be taken. Regardless, "Grounded for Life" wants desperately to be this year's "Malcolm in the Middle," a break-out midseason hit about a wacky family.
But where the family on "Malcolm" is an absurd cartoon of reality, the Finnertys of "Grounded" act crazy, but there's no sense of absurdity. And that makes them pathetic.
Unlike "Malcolm" and its horrid NBC clone, "Tucker," "Grounded" doesn't come from a kid's point of view. Instead, it's the parents who are in the middle of things and their 14-year-old daughter (Lynsey Bartilson) who talks back. If she were my kid, she would be grounded for life, but these are sitcom parents and they have no control over their household. Or themselves.
When Sean (Donal Logue) sees his daughter making out with a boy in a car, he throws a bucket of fried chicken at them. When he stumbles across her fake I.D., he breaks into her e-mail to see how she plans to use it. "Grounded" once again sends the rather unhelpful message that parents are dumb, their kids are smarter.
"Grounded" benefits from some details that are realistic -- the Finnerty boys bounce from one sofa to the next, pretending the floor is lava (a game I remember playing as a child); rather than logging into a fake Internet service provider, the Finnerty parents hack into their daughter's America Online account by guessing the password.
Some of the dialogue also hits the mark. Sean's wife, Claudia (Megyn Price), argues they can't confront their daughter with the fake I.D. because Sean found it in her room.
"It's tainted evidence," she says. "A parent cannot go into a teen-age girls' room, cannot go through her stuff. Anything he finds is inadmissible."
It's a cute little play on police procedure by way of "The Practice," but smart details like this can't cover up the lack of smarts in typically over-the-top sitcomy stories made slightly more circuitous by an over reliance on flashbacks. That works for "Titus," but in "Grounded" it's just a rip-off.
I can't let this review end without noting the complete lack of believability that a woman as beautiful as Megyn Price would marry a shlubby guy like Donal Logue. That isn't grounded in any sort of reality.
"Jack & Jill"
The show with the most confusing character names returns tonight, so let's have a quick review: Jack is the girl. Her nickname short for Jacqueline. Jill is the boy. It's derived from his last name, Jillefsky.
The show (tonight at 9) follows The WB's standard formula: pretty white people with problems, as "Mad TV" once spoofed. Regardless, "Jack & Jill" grew into a cute romantic comedy-drama in its first season and it returns tonight in fine shape.
The relationship between twentysomething lovers Jack (Amanda Peet) and Jill (Ivan Sergei) will advance this season, but not without complications (of course).
Their friends have their own messes to clean up. Audrey (Jaime Pressly) is upset at Barto (Justin Kirk) for cheating on her, and he's just as disgusted with himself.
Meanwhile, odd couple roommates Elisa (Sarah Paulson) and Mikey (Simon Rex) continue to provide comic fodder with enough of an undercurrent of attraction to keep viewers guessing.
Tonight the whole gang attends the wedding of one of Jill's ex-girlfriends, which leads to Jack and Jill contemplating the possibility of their own marriage. But Jill's slip of the tongue leads to much discontentment.
"We've got all the time in the world," Jill says after they discuss whether Jack would take his last name.
"How much time do you consider that to be, hypothetically?" Jack replies.
"Jack & Jill" remains a cute, lightweight, sugary, romantic confection. Diabetics: You've been warned.