There isn’t a single subtle joke in this newsroom comedy, from the weather girl’s heaving cleavage to the 26-year-old news director’s sweaty armpits. Still, Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton are solid practitioners of the sitcom craft, and they occupy their characters with playful ease. “Back to You” hardly looks like a breakout hit, and it’s an utter mystery how a show much better suited to another network (as in CBS) wound up on Fox. That said, the series has the fixings of a respectable old-fashioned comedy, which is more than can be said for most of this fall’s half-hours.
Making like a latter-day Ted Baxter, Grammer plays Chuck Darling — a puffed-up, preening local news anchor who climbed the market ladder from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles by way of Denver, Minneapolis and Dallas. All that comes crashing down, however, after one YouTube-immortalized diatribe, causing Chuck to retreat back to WURG in Pittsburgh.
A few things around the station are new, like the cherub-faced news director (Josh Gad) and R-trilling Latina meteorologist wannabe Montana Diaz Herrera (Ayda Field, fresh off “Studio 60”). Yet Chuck also is reunited with wacky sports guy Marsh McGinley (a typically daft Fred Willard) and, most significantly, co-anchor Kelly Carr (Heaton), with whom he shared a brief romantic tryst before graduating to the bigger-time.
Grammer and Heaton spar like old hands, but the punches (and punchlines) are so consistently telegraphed, the series seldom rises above the mundane. Nor does it bode well that the second installment continues the incessant bickering that began in the first, which, even with sitcom director extraordinaire James Burrows’ hand at the tiller, threatens to quickly grow as stale as the episode’s recurring goldfish gag.
Series creators Steve Levitan and Chris Lloyd don’t take much advantage of the venue either, though in reality, most local TV news has become so laughable as to thwart efforts at parody. In fact, when eager-to-please correspondent Gary (Ty Burrell) contemplates being Tasered for a piece in the next half-hour, the stunt could hardly approach the merriment of watching CNN’s risible Rick Sanchez carry out this semimasochistic ritual for real.
A larger riddle involves what Fox hopes to achieve with its development, birthing bland middle-of-the-road sitcoms like “Back to You’s” companion “‘Til Death,” which almost surely would have lived down to that title barring a first-season assist from “American Idol.” If the message from “Arrested Development” was that risk isn’t rewarded, let’s say this qualifies as an overreaction. (Speaking of overreacting, by the way, the show’s studio audience can only be described as absurdly appreciative.)
“Back to You” at least possesses a cast that knows how to glean maximum benefits from modest material, especially in the show’s quieter moments. Think of that as this newscast’s feel-good sign-off, with the more depressing lead story being that the WURG gang will need those skills and then some if they hope to endure long enough to bask in the afterglow of “Idol” worship.