About halfway through the second episode, I found yourself wishing this undistinguished family comedy carried as many laughs as it does executive producers. Tracy Morgan has proved he can be a funny guy in sketches on “Saturday Night Live,” but playing another dad-who’s-really-just-a-big-kid-himself capitalizes only sparingly on those skills. As much as the modest success of the equally bland “According to Jim,” “My Wife and Kids” and “Still Standing” demonstrates the appetite for “Father Doesn’t Know Best But He Tries Hard” sitcoms, it’s also questionable whether NBC (think “Daddio”) can master the formula.
Ever since “The Cosby Show” signed off almost a dozen years ago, NBC has filled its coffers thanks to yuppie faves such as “Friends,” “Seinfeld” and “Mad About You,” the kind of sophisticated big-city fare with which 20- and 30-something media buyers can identify. In doing so, the network has gravitated toward non-nuclear sitcom families — workplace settings, gay-straight pals, etc. — and had trouble selling the more conventional variety. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Still, with apologies for saying “brandwise,” the Morgan show feels like a better fit for ABC, exhibiting scant edge beyond the occasional reference to race — most of those along the lines of “You know they don’t serve black people” at Denny’s.
Morgan plays yet another blue-collar guy with a model-pretty wife (Tamala Jones) — a sitcom tradition admittedly as old as “The Honeymooners,” though you wonder how the Stepford factory keeps pace with demand.
The couple has two precocious boys, the shy and studious Derrick (Marc John Jefferies) and disturbingly sitcomized Jimmy (Bobb’e J. Thompson), a 7-year-old forced to channel Redd Foxx. As a result, the adorable tyke gets saddled with huge gobs of dialogue, including unfortunate bits in which he lusts after girls and talks to his parents as if he were their age.
Tracy also runs a garage that includes a colorful cast of characters. The initial plots deal with Derrick getting a crush on a girl and Tracy’s fear of doctors. It’s all played quite broadly, but other than a genial ambience and Morgan’s natural rapport with the boys, the show won’t make anyone forget the family comedies on which it’s patterned, despite the Carsey Werner Mandabach-“SNL” pedigree.
Nevertheless, “Tracy Morgan” has the chance to work out for NBC — not only because it inherits a timeslot where the bar is set relatively low, but because by scheduling it there the network can bookend “Frasier” with “Whoopi” and “Happy Family” and ship “Good Morning Miami” elsewhere. Whatever the outcome, on paper that’s a more logical configuration than the lead-off pairing of those latter two series that opened the season.
In that context, even so-so ratings that gave “Whoopi” something to build upon against ABC and UPN sitcoms would represent progress, on a night where NBC would be content to finally start clicking again on one or two cylinders, much less all of them.