'Surviving Jack': Kids all right, parents terrific

Posted: March 26, 2014

* SURVIVING JACK. 9:30 p.m. Thursday, Fox 29.

WITH all due respect to William Shatner, Justin Halpern's father has undergone an extreme makeover since we last saw him.

The quotable curmudgeon of CBS' "$#*! My Dad Says" is now the quotable curmudgeon of Fox's "Surviving Jack," in which a very funny Chris Meloni ("Law & Order: Special Victims Unit") plays Halpern's dad at an earlier stage of their relationship, when the writer, whose father-dependent Twitter feed launched his TV career, was still in high school.

And the fact that I now adore Halpern's TV dad has less to do with the relative hotness of Shatner vs. Meloni than it does with Rachael Harris, who plays Halpern's mother (because this is still a TV show, she and Meloni play a couple called Joanne and Jack Dunlevy).

Forget the kids: I could happily watch Meloni and Harris banter and flirt for a half-hour a week. Too bad she's in school all day.

Based on Halpern's book, I Suck at Girls, "Surviving Jack" restores the writer's mother to her rightful place in his semifictional universe, focusing on the time when she decided to go to law school and his father, an oncologist, cut back his hours to keep an eye on their adolescent offspring.

In the show, those kids are a gangly, mildly awkward son, Frankie (Connor Buckley), and an anything but awkward 17-year-old daughter, Rachel (Claudia Lee).

Like ABC's "The Goldbergs" and NBC's "Growing Up Fisher," "Surviving Jack" invites comparisons to "The Wonder Years," with a voice-over, a boy who's trying to figure out girls and pop culture-driven nostalgia. (If you were already an adult in the early '90s, prepare to feel old.)

They're all among the season's better new comedies, but "Jack" offers a view of equal partners in a hot marriage, one that isn't all about the kids (even if the show mostly will be). Jack's not only besotted with his wife - whose amusement with him takes the sting out of his more extreme statements - but he's not afraid to say that she comes first, at one point telling his son that "if an asteroid were to hit this earth and she and I were the only two people left alive, I'd be OK."

It's not clear that Frankie's mother would agree. But then we may never get to the point where a TV mother could put anyone or anything ahead of her children and remain sympathetic. Witness the hell that rained down on writer Ayelet Waldman a few years ago when she wrote, in an essay reprinted in the New York Times, that she loved her husband, novelist Michael Chabon, "more than my children."

I'd argue that raising kids to believe they're the center of anyone's universe guarantees neither present nor future happiness.

Halpern, who first recorded that last-two-people-on-earth exchange in I Suck at Girls, has grown up to be gainfully employed and has written not one, but two shows about the acerbic man who helped raise him. The second's even pretty good.

May all our kids survive us so well.

'Watchathon Week'

If you're a Comcast digital subscriber who's always wanted to see "Game of Thrones" but never felt like adding HBO to your monthly bill, block out next week for a binge or two.

"Xfinity Watchathon Week" starts Monday, and the cable company's giving its customers free passes to more than 5,000 episodes of more than 130 series, through its On Demand platform. Including three seasons of "Game of Thrones," which returns for its fourth on April 6.

More information can be found at xfinitywatchathonhq.com.

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On Twitter: @elgray

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