Free Ride

Slacker comedy is harder work than it looks. It's surprising, then, for another promising newcomer to arrive not long after FX nailed the landing on "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," as producer-writer-director Rob Roy Thomas delivers a kind of "The Graduate" for the '00s.

Nate Stahlings - Josh Dean Amber Danwood - Erin Cahill Dove - Dave Sheridan Margo Stahlings - Loretta Fox Bob Stahlings - Allan Havey

Slacker comedy is harder work than it looks, which explains the trail of roadkill strewn around Fox, the WB and others in recent years. It’s surprising, then, for another promising newcomer to arrive not long after FX nailed the landing on “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” as producer-writer-director Rob Roy Thomas — the mastermind behind Bravo’s too-short-lived improv-com “Significant Others” — delivers a kind of “The Graduate” for the ’00s. Semi-improvised and natural, “Free Ride” gets the benefit of a post-“American Idol” launch before its real test begins, when it joins Fox’s Sunday lineup in mid-March.

The series actually opens with the same gag that set up the WB’s “Living With Fran” — a kid coming home from college to discover his room has been transformed into a gym. Fortunately, the similarities end there.

Nate (Josh Dean) attended UC-Santa Barbara, but now he’s back in Johnson City, Mo., where his parents (Loretta Fox and Allan Havey) are muddling through a hostile marriage and his old friends are otherwise occupied. In a chance encounter, he meets a girl from his high school, Amber (Erin Cahill), which would be great if she wasn’t engaged to someone else.

Mostly to kill time, Nate begins hanging out with Dove (Dave Sheridan), a wild man who seems to be cryogenically frozen in the 11th grade. Pressed by his parents to move out, Nate has given up on his major, saying, “The good news is that I know what I don’t want to do.”

“Free Ride” proceeds at an unforced pace, with Nate deciding he needs five months (not coincidentally, the time until Amber’s wedding) at home to get himself on his feet, even if that means crashing in the garage and enduring his parents’ peculiar behavior.

None of this is especially new, but Dean brings a likeability to the dazed and confused protagonist, as does Cahill (a one-time Mighty Morphin Power Ranger!) as Amber, who is experiencing her own misgivings about her chosen path. It’s in their scenes together, in fact, that the improv element works best, bringing out a stammering, awkward authenticity.

Thomas’ “Significant Others,” which just came out on DVD, used an even more heavily improvised approach to examine couples in marriage counseling, and “Free Ride” doesn’t slice so closely to the bone or swing as wildly. Still, there’s a breezy charm to the show, as well as a universal quality in Nate’s paralysis in that nether-realm between college and adulthood.

How well that will wear in a series that’s more amusing than fall-over-laughing funny is difficult to gauge; still, if the cast and writers can sustain the quirky appeal that characterizes the first two half-hours, it’s not a huge leap to see those five months Nate hopes to spend at home stretching out into five TV seasons.

Free Ride

Fox, Wed. March 1, 9:30 P.M.

Production: Filmed in Los Angeles by Fox 21. Executive producer, Rob Roy Thomas; co-executive producers, Michael Binkow, Joe Revello; supervising producers, Chris Cox, Matt Sloan; producer, Allison Kingsley; co-producers, Aaron Hilliard, Luke Del Tredici; director, Thomas; story by Thomas.

Crew: Camera, Steve Ackerman; editor, Noriko Miyakawa, Jason Rosenfeld, John W. Carr; music supervisor, Mark Wike; casting, Francene Selkirk-Ackerman. 30 MIN.

Cast: Nate Stahlings - Josh Dean Amber Danwood - Erin Cahill Dove - Dave Sheridan Margo Stahlings - Loretta Fox Bob Stahlings - Allan Havey

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