In recent years, single-camera comedies have overtaken the traditional multi-camera format with the advent of shows like The Office, Modern Family, and Arrested Development. Single-camera projects outnumber multi-cams by far this pilot season, and they are often held in higher regard critically and artistically despite the overwhelming popularity of Two and a Half Men, The Big Bang Theory, and a billion others throughout television history. The elimination of the laugh track/studio audience has led to the mistaken assumption that the single-camera format is inherently superior to the multi-cam setup. On Wednesday night, ABC debuted its latest single-cam comedy, Family Tools, to remind us that isn't always the case.
For a show that boasts a cast including JK Simmons, Leah Remini, and Kyle Bornheimer, the pilot episode was startlingly devoid of humor. Although he may be best known for his sinister portrayal of Aryan Brotherhood leader Vern Schillinger on the HBO prison drama Oz, Simmons has proven to be a reliable comedic performer and he brings his trademark gruff-with-a-heart-of-gold charm to the role of Tony Shea. After suffering two heart attacks in the pilot, Tony is forced to relinquish control of the family handyman business to his good-intentioned, ne'er-do-well son Jack, played ably by Bornheimer.
I was surprised to look up Bornheimer's IMDB resume and not really remember him in anything he's ever been in, yet he seems so familiar. He brings an earnest, likable quality to a character who could easily come across as annoying or pathetic. His interactions with the ravishing Stitch (Danielle Nicolet) felt tiresome, however, and it wasn't clear if she was flirting with Jack because she likes him or just to irritate her brother — and Jack's co-worker — Darren (Edi Gathegi). I suppose that's the romantic hook, but it just felt weird and awkward so soon.
Aiding Tony in the decision to hand over the reigns of the business is his sister Terry, who prevents paramedics from entering the house until he agrees for the good of his health. Family Tools is Leah Remini's first stab at a single-camera comedy and it shows. In a role tailor-made for her, the sitcom veteran gives it her all and does an admirable job of playing another version of Leah Remini, but there's just something missing. Perhaps it's overexposure due to her day job on The Talk. Maybe it's a lack of energy without the studio audience she had while taping King of Queens. In interviews, Remini has likened the on-set atmosphere to a funeral because of the silence during filming and that attitude bleeds through into the show.
The highlight of the pilot is Johnny Pemberton's subtle but hilarious performance as Terry's teenage son Mason, who happily lives in the basement. Upon his cousin Jack's arrival, Mason expresses his sincere excitement about being roommates and his grandiose plans to form a "positive-message rock band" with him. Despite Jack's initial reticence, they eventually get together and play an amusing tune about fathers that wraps up the episode.
Family Tools has potential to shape up into something better over the remaining nine episodes. The pilot is nothing special, but you can feel the talented cast trying to improve the material through sheer force of will. Once they jell together and the story opens up a bit, the rest of the series should improve. Don't get too attached, though; ABC has plenty of comedy pilots to consider for next season and word is there's a very slim chance Family Tools will survive.
FINAL GRADE: C+