In NBC’s “The Fighting Fitzgeralds,” Brian Dennehy stars as an Irish curmudgeon patriarch to a clan of three grown boys, one daughter-in-law and a young granddaughter. With a kinder, gentler Archie Bunker at its center, the show also boasts clear elements of the indie film “The Brothers McMullen,” written and directed by Edward Burns, who is one of the exec producers here. Throw in the young kid and you’ve got three sitcoms in one. None of them are particularly funny, but that doesn’t necessarily make this show bad. It’s exactly the kind of easy-to-take half hour that may, with the right handling, eke along without becoming a break-out performer, just appealing enough to just enough of a broad audience base to survive.
Dennehy plays Mr. Fitz, as he’s called, an Irish Catholic widower and retired firefighter who still has trouble adjusting to a world where adult men go into therapy and kids call their teachers by their first names. With his late wife, whom we learn nothing about in the pilot, he has raised three very different boys. There’s the no-nonsense Jim (Justin Louis), a gym teacher who is married to the lovely Sophie (“Spin City’s” Connie Britton) and father to adorable Marie (Dakota Fanning). Then there’s ne’er-do-well bartender Terry (Chris Moynihan), who can barely open his mouth without getting smacked in the back of his head by his disapproving father. And, finally, there’s Fitzgerald’s pride and joy, his youngest son Patrick (Jon Patrick Walker), who, setting the pilot in motion, announces that he has quit his high-powered job as a stockbroker and wants to move back home.
While “The Fighting Fitzgeralds” does raise memories of “All in the Family,” it has already gone right past that show’s edginess to the forgettable “Archie Bunker’s Place,” where the famous grump had already been revealed as a teddy bear at heart and was busy raising a kid to prove it. Dennehy can scream and shout all he wants, but the bluster belies the soft core underneath. The biggest difference: Carroll O’Connor could make his character’s contempt for all things modern known with the raise of an eyebrow. In this pilot, Dennehy has to say it all, and then say it again: “When I was growing up,” he might say, or some other phrase introducing another quip to mark the generational difference. O’Connor could just spit out a raspberry, and didn’t need to explain. That was a whole lot funnier.
Still, Dennehy, who also co-exec produces, is a real pro with a presence all his own, and if he relaxes into the role, he may find that the comedy comes more easily when he exerts less energy. It’s hard to imagine anyone better suited to this particular role, and there are signs that Dennehy may develop some real chemistry with members of this able cast, particularly Britton and Moynihan.
The show could still go in any number of directions, but with its mushy underbelly already exposed, “The Fighting Fitzgeralds” seems most at home as a family show, one that can survive on slight sentimentality more than biting adult humor. Each week, Fitzgerald can find a way to tell someone he loves them, despite his discomfort at voicing such feelings. The show is inoffensive, even though it pretends to be otherwise with a few strict nun and drinking Irishmen jokes. The network seems to have positioned it properly by placing it in the 8 o’clock Tuesday slot after launching it at 8:30.