Following last year’s midseason Fox hit, “Malcolm in the Middle,” Regency Television returns to the single-camera family sitcom format with NBC’s “Tucker.” In tone, the show falls almost exactly in between the irreverent edge of “Malcolm” and the adolescent innocence of “The Wonder Years,” but the pilot episode lacks the strong point of view and crafty storytelling that made both those previous shows stand out. Tucked in a Monday timeslot opposite CBS’ established comedy night and the WB’s “Seventh Heaven,” “Tucker” will need to draw on a male teen audience attracted to the sexual double-entendres and the catty villainy of “Married … With Children’s” Katey Sagal. It’s a longshot.
In the opening prologue, writer/producers Ron Milbauer and Terri Hughes (“Idle Hands”) throw in the first of what will be many references to the 14-year-old title character’s penchant for erections. Direct mentions of genitalia or the act of onanism are carefully averted, but the euphemisms are apparent enough, and young lead Eli Marienthal is going to get a lot of practice learning to blush on cue.
The opener sets up the basic situation, which is a mix of teenage dream and nightmare. Tucker’s dad has left his family for a young blonde; Tucker and his homemaker mom Jeannie (Noell Beck) are forced to move in with Aunt Claire (Sagal), Uncle Jimmy (Casey Sander) and cousin Leon (Nathan Lawrence).
Immediately, Tucker finds the situation intolerable. First, he has to put up with exuberantly friendly but doltish Leon’s obsession with professional wrestling — and very disturbing habit of collecting hair samples. Then he mistakenly observes his aunt undressing, and Claire feels compelled to inform the neighborhood of her nephew’s apparent perversions. Luckily, McKenna (Alison Lohman), the gorgeous blond girl next door, doesn’t think sexuality is anything to be ashamed of, and the episode ends with her giving Tucker a copy of “Lady Chatterly’s Lover.”
Marienthal is appealing, but Tucker, like the rest of the characters, is not very sharply drawn. There’s a trap in making the narrative center too much of a vague Everykid. “Wonder Years” got away with the kind of omniscient voiceover used in “Tucker” by incorporating a historical perspective, but here, there’s a serious danger of making Tucker the least interesting element of the show, although for now that honor clearly falls to his mother, whose primary attribute seems to be lip gloss.
Sagal seems to be keeping her perf purposely subdued so as not to overwhelm the show, which is a smart move by the always capable director Allan Arkush.
But somewhere along the way, “Tucker” needs to find a source of unpredictability to emerge as anything but a forced and derivative effort. Sagal is probably its best shot.