Athough many fondly remember his stint anchoring “Saturday Night Live’s” “Weekend Update,” a few minutes of Norm Macdonald generally go a long way, as demonstrated by his eponymous ABC series. Yet that’s only one problem with his new Fox comedy, a stale twist on “Green Acres” that turns small-town expectations on their head without shaking many laughs loose in the process.
Notably lacking in “Fox attitude” and thematically similar to ABC’s “Married to the Kellys,” “Stan Hooper” is about as mundane as a sitcom gets. Both shows, in fact, begin with a somewhat dated premise, in which the protagonists assume the world outside of Manhattan only recently learned to make fire.
Despite co-creating the show with “Coach’s” Barry Kemp, Macdonald is mostly a bystander and straight-man character here. In essence, he’s playing a cross between Charles Kuralt and ABC News’ Robert Krulwich, a reporter who seeks out quirky stories for a popular TV news program. Determined to experience small-town life, Stan and his wife Molly (Penelope Ann Miller) return to Waterford Falls, which they passed through on their honeymoon years before.
Still, if Stan has his heart set on a place where folks drink a “cup o’ Joe” instead of cappuccino, he’s quickly disabused of the notion. Like many a TV town before it, this cheese-obsessed Wisconsin burg is full of quirky characters, from an unwanted butler who comes with the house (Brian Howe) to the local cheese king (Fred Willard, on autopilot) to the chipper duo (Daniel Roebuck and Garret Dillahunt) who run the local diner.
It doesn’t help that Macdonald’s limited range (he’s one of those standups who doesn’t translate well to the sitcom form) compels him to walk through the premiere with a perpetually baffled look recalling Bill Murray in “Caddyshack” — nor that Miller doesn’t register much as his wife. Yes, we’re seeing this strange little world through their jaundiced eyes, but do they have to be such boring snobs?
The supporting players fare somewhat better. Roebuck delivers the one truly funny moment, and Willard’s cameo is a kick, though the part is so reminiscent of similar roles — including his recurring gig on “Everybody Loves Raymond” — as to limit its impact.
Whatever its shortcomings, “Stan Hooper” inherits promising real estate between “That ’70s Show” and “The OC,” with only ABC’s “It’s All Relative” vying for the comedy crowd. Auguring in its favor, too, is the better-than-expected performance of ABC’s new comedies, suggesting the word “undemanding” is not currently a pejorative in the sitcom lexicon.
Nevertheless, faced with a half-hour to kill before “The West Wing” and “The Bachelor,” more discriminating viewers might want to read the kids a story or treat themselves to a cup o’ Joe and a big slab of cheese.