Jonathan Storm: Favorable forecast

"Traffic Light" stars (from left) Kris Marshall, David Denman, and Nelson Franklin.
"Traffic Light" stars (from left) Kris Marshall, David Denman, and Nelson Franklin.

ABC's new sitcom, "Mr. Sunshine," starring Matthew Perry, seems to promise mostly blue skies ahead. The outlook for Fox's "Traffic Light" is cloudier.

Posted: February 08, 2011

ABC and Fox premiere new sitcoms this week, each traveling familiar roads.

The path is solid blacktop for ABC, which has demonstrated with Modern Family and The Middle, two of the best new comedies of the last few years, that it knows where it's going.

Mr. Sunshine, bowing Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. after Modern Family, looks promising, with former Friend Matthew Perry playing straight man in a swirl of kooks, including an especially amusing Allison Janney, who deliver consistent laughs.

Fox's road is bumpier. Traffic Light, which starts Tuesday at 9:30 p.m., seems an awfully standard entry to partner with the warm, yet dizzyingly crackpot Raising Hope. Hope may not be on the superhighway to Hitsville, but it's the first Fox sitcom in years that hasn't been a total ratings dead end.

Similarly, Traffic Light, latest entry in a string of comedies on all the networks about couples in different stages of their relationships, may not stop traffic, but it's not a total loss.

Mr. Sunshine is supposed to be a joke in itself. Perry, himself a prickly sort, plays Ben Donovan, an admittedly self-centered guy with a limited sense of humor who manages San Diego's fictional Sunshine Center, a 17,505-seat arena that's home to concerts, sporting events, trade shows, and, in the first episode, a circus.

Perry also created and produces the show, so he gets more than the usual amount of credit or blame. He has not made Ben a puddle of laughs, but this self-centered single guy who's trying to do better may be a partial reaction to Perry's own life, which includes a couple of stints in rehab (prescription drugs) and lots of relationships with beautiful women that haven't worked out.

But how funny is Janney, last seen regularly on TV in The West Wing as no-nonsense White House press secretary and chief of staff C.J. Cregg?

Janney's character here owns the arena and is blithely clueless about just about everything. In the pilot, she gets in a pickle because one of the dogs at a dog track she owns in the Himalayas "allegedly bit a Himalayan."

To refocus the spotlight, she arranges to donate big bucks to a children's charity, getting Ben to organize a well-publicized check-passing ceremony so she can be seen helping children of various ethnicities, and making sure he puts an Asian kid front and center. "The Himalayas are in Asia, right?" she asks.

Though she endeavors to keep her endearingly dimwitted son, played by the pitch-perfect Nate Torrence, completely out of her life, she also asks Ben to give him a job at the arena. And that may turn out to be Ben's toughest assignment in a very complicated world that includes hockey rink ice that won't melt, a runaway elephant, and a beautiful but slightly skewed assistant.

How skewed? She once lit a boyfriend on fire.

"The guy's OK, though?" Ben asks his friend, Alonzo (James Lesure), a preternaturally happy foil to the malaise-riddle Ben.

"Well," Alonzo replies, "she did light him on fire, so he's not great."

Neither is Fox's Traffic Light, though it's hardly the charred ruin of NBC's Perfect Couples, and it's better, too, than ABC's passable Better With You, the two most recent bubbles in the multi-couple, ain't-love-cute sitcom wave. (CBS's offering, Mad Love, starts Monday.)

Light is adapted from an Israeli series, and the strange title refers to the stages of relationship in which three former college buddies find themselves: full speed ahead (Kris Marshall's Ethan, a serial dater); slowing down (Nelson Franklin's Adam, newly moved in with his girlfriend); and stopped (married lawyer and father Mike, played by David Denman).

This trio comes close to being the typical ex-frat boy doo-doo-heads who inhabit so many sitcoms, as they conspire to trick Adam's girlfriend and Mike's wife to get silly time to themselves.

The women, as usual in sitcoms, are smarter and more serious than the guys, but Aya Cash, as girlfriend Callie, and, especially, Liza Lapira as Mrs. Mike, are not simply the old ball and chains.

All five characters, in fact, transcend the cheap stereotypes that lazy writers so frequently use to populate their sitcoms. That may not be enough to propel their show into the long green of syndication, but for a Fox sitcom, even cautious optimism is a step in the right direction.


Jonathan Storm:

Television

Traffic Light

9:30 p.m. Tuesday on Fox29

Mr. Sunshine

9:30 p.m. Wednesday on 6ABC


Contact television critic Jonathan Storm at 215-854-5618 or jstorm@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/jonathanstorm.

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