You know a sitcom's in trouble when the laugh track seems to come on at random. Nothing on-screen registers as funny, yet you keep hearing those unnerving guffaws.
So it happens 15 seconds into TBS's new sitcom, Sullivan & Son, which premieres Thursday with two back-to-back episodes. And it keeps happening for the duration.
A low-concept cross of Cheers, All in the Family, and the Drew Carey Show, Sullivan & Son was cocreated and cowritten by popular Korean American stand-up comic Steve Byrne, who also stars.
As the pilot opens, Steve Sullivan (Byrne), a successful corporate lawyer on Wall Street, is bringing his fiancée, Ashley (Brooke Lyons), an uptight, overdressed New York society girl wannabe, home to meet his parents in their working-class Pittsburgh home.
An explosive laugh-track incursion occurs when Ashley looks out the cab window and remarks with alarm that they're in a really dangerous, nasty part of town.
Canned laughter when a cowed Steven points out that it's his neighborhood.
So it is. And the Sullivan family's beloved dive bar is its beating heart.
Steve's dad, Jack (Dan Lauria), runs the bar while his Korean-born mom, Ok Cha (Jodi Long), runs the family's life with an iron hand, barking orders with a sometimes embarrassingly exaggerated thick Asian accent.
Dad is sweet and gregarious, mom is pushy, mean and emotionless. (Must be why Steve is drawn to the insufferable, bossy Ashley.)
In one scene, Steve's mom tells his sister Susan (Vivian Bang) she doesn't like her new hairstyle. "You're showing too much face," says mom.
Susan tells a shocked Steve that when it comes to put-downs from mom, "that's like a hug."
This, sadly, is the most sophisticated and droll moment of the first three episodes.
When Steve's parents tell him they're putting the bar up for sale, he does the inevitable — dumps Ashley, moves back home, and takes over the bar, to the delight of his best pal, Owen (Owen Benjamin), an unemployable, if mildly charming dolt with a two-digit IQ who essentially lives in the bar. (He makes Cheers' Woody look like a Rhodes Scholar.)
The bar's other habitué is Owen's mom, Carol (Christine Ebersole), the neighborhood's perpetually tipsy and horny 50-year-old harlot.
The bar also has a multicultural rainbow of regulars — there are Mexican Americans, African Americans, even an Arab American named Ahmed (comic Ahmed Ahmed). They prove an essential lesson: You don't have to be white to be a nincompoop.
The rainbow coalition is balanced out by Hank (Brian Doyle-Murray) a gruff, hate-filled racist with a heart of gold. He's an equal opportunity hater who dumps on anyone remotely off-white.
Byrne's characters are so one-dimensional, his comedy so broad that the show feels like a connect-the-dots exercise in clichés.
Byrne is charming, but he looks ill at ease on camera. As does the more experienced Lauria. Usually a consummate professional, he looks lost.
Whether it's the unfunny, raunchy jokes, the acting, the writing, or the awful blocking, nothing in Sullivan & Son seems to jell. And no laugh track can change that.