Tuned In

Back to You: Old News in a New Bottle

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Sam Jones/FOX

In 1994, a successful network TV producer, having just sold a pilot in the then-boom market for sitcoms, decided to celebrate by pursuing a lifelong dream: climbing Mount Everest. Setting out with an experienced crew of climbers and sherpas, and taking the only videotape of his completed pilot with him, he ascended what was believed to be a safe trail for dilettante adventure seekers. But a freak out-of-season storm blew up and the expedition was lost, their bodies never recovered. Until this spring, when a climbing party came across the frozen corpse of the showrunner-cum-adventurer–and the perfectly preserved tape of his last sitcom.

This, anyway, is one explanation for Back to You, a workplace sitcom that is so conventional and-mid-’90s retro that it lacks only a theme song by The Rembrandts. Sitcom warhorses Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton play Chuck Darling and Kelly Carr, a Pittsburgh news-anchor duo reunited after 10 years when an on-air blow-up costs him his job in L.A. Egos are bruised and sparks fly. That they have a romantic history will not surprise you, nor will a further twist that, to be a good sport, I will humor Fox by not revealing.

Back to You is not bad, not exactly. It’s competent to a fault. Grammer and Heaton can play these roles in their sleep and yet to their credit largely manage to stay awake. Grammer especially gives Chuck more depth than you’d expect as a vain, Botox-dependent man who knows he’s past his sell-by date. (Kelly, on the other hand, is disappointingly flighty and reactive in the first two episodes.) Fred Willard plays a sportscaster, and you know that can’t be bad. And I defy anyone to think of two more perfect names for a local-anchor duo than Chuck Darling and Kelly Carr.

But on a joke-by-joke level, the show is hack work, full of broad jokes and “zinger” humor that plays like cave etchings in the era of The Office and 30 Rock. The bar is even higher for a comic setup that’s been done so often, and Back to You is not even as sophisticated as Buffalo Bill was three decades earlier. There’s a slutty Latina weathergirl who wears micro minis and trills her R’s, and way too many predictable setups. How many times can two anchors throwing to a commercial, freezing their smiles in place and then insulting each other–or vice versa, just for variety–be funny? How many live-remote-reports-gone-wrong setups can you do? The show is just a pastiche of whatever media-comedy devices happen to have worked at some point in the past. In one flashback, set in 1997, Willard is wearing a ’70s sportcoat that seems pilfered from Herb Tarlek’s wardrobe. But hey, it was funny in Anchorman, so why not?

That said, I laughed at the stale but well-executed jokes a few more times than I expected to, and the show should play well among its target audience, which I’m assuming is prematurely curmudgeonly Gen Xers and Boomers nostalgic for the glory days of Just Shoot Me. Or viewers who are really excited by hearing middle-aged people insult each other over bad sex they had ten years ago. (“I couldn’t sleep a minute last night. Just lay there and stared at the ceiling.” “Well, I see some things haven’t changed.”) You stay classy, Pittsburgh.

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