In a year of mostly safe bets, credit NBC and DreamWorks with swinging for the fences in this expensive, computer-animated comedy, which, alas, connects only fitfully despite delivering admirably in places. The show nevertheless remains a serious gamble with doubtful prospects, as its sporadically tawdry tone clearly isn’t meant for kids, and questions linger about how many adults will be motivated to tune in a CGI series on their own, the popularity of “Shrek” and its sequel notwithstanding.
On the plus side, the producers have skirted the thorny issue of Siegfried and Roy’s participation after the latter’s mauling by one of their tigers, which once threatened to cast a creepy pall over the project. Those concerns evaporate quickly, with the pair depicted in such a cartoonish manner — almost like elfin, brain-addled superheroes — as to erase thoughts of that tragedy, while simultaneously rendering them far and away the best element within the show.
Indeed, it’s no accident the second episode provided by NBC, which features the duo more prominently, is infinitely funnier and sharper than the ho-hum first installment. In fact, if this trend holds, the series would benefit from expanding Siegfried’s and Roy’s roles — one drawback of animation, because the long lead time doesn’t allow for quick on-the-fly course corrections as easily as a conventional comedy.
At least initially, the show’s premise and pun-intended title center not on the magic men but rather their anthropomorphic lions, who chat and bicker like a regular sitcom family when humans aren’t around and revert to all fours when they are.
The titular character (voiced by John Goodman) is Larry, who performs in Siegfried and Roy’s act, having supplanted his curmudgeonly father-in-law Sarmoti (Carl Reiner), leaving wife, Kate (“Curb Your Enthusiasm’s” Cheryl Hines), somewhat caught in the middle.
Surrounding them are a colorful assortment of animal neighbors in the ersatz zoo Siegfried and Roy maintain behind the Mirage, from Larry’s gopher friend Snack (Orlando Jones) to an Indian elephant (with appropriate accent) apparently sharing a same-sex crib with a turkey. Yes, a turkey.
NBC shuffled episodes in an effort to put its best paws forward, but the maiden entry — featuring Larry and Kate’s efforts to hook up a pair of mating-phobic pandas — falls mostly flat, despite guest voicing by Lisa Kudrow and Andy Richter.
An inordinate amount of thought clearly went into designing the rules of this animal kingdom, but at times the program settles into a tired set-up/joke rhythm. The premiere, for example, essentially hinges on Larry desperately wanting to get laid while his kids are away, with the fact that his wife is “in heat” not really adding much to a very old sitcom staple.
The second outing is significantly better, with Larry scheduled to perform a publicity stunt on “The Today Show.” Siegfried, meanwhile, holds a simmering grudge against NBC’s Matt Lauer (playing himself) for having dared to cut short an interview with German tennis great Boris Becker years before.
In the midst of their cheerful bickering, the duo refers to Lauer’s “non-threatening good looks” and stumbles upon a scheme for a fabulous illusion. “Even vhen ve fight, ve make magic,” they gush.
That occasional “I’ll have what they’re smokin’ ” lunacy presents “Father of the Pride” most favorably, a series developed by Jonathan Groff after DreamWorks honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg (who receives “created by” credit) conceived the idea while watching Siegfried and Roy’s Vegas act.
Hazy as the crystal ball appears, a few matters are certain. Between NBC’s comedy sendoffs last season and DreamWorks spinning off its animation unit, the stakes could hardly be higher. In addition, the marathon of Olympics-placed spots from NBC’s promotional magicians should generate initial curiosity, which won’t necessarily spell enduring success.
Indeed, as Larry says of Siegfried and Roy to a new arrival, “It gets old real fast” — a cautionary note for the show itself. “Pride” surely looks different than any other comedy premiering this fall, but if these cats are going to wind up being more than just a memory, it’s going to require every one of their nine lives to make that happen.