“Almost Family” is an almost-terrific show that reminds us of what’s possible:
A show can still try to do it all. It can have heavy-duty, life-and-death crises one moment … light human drama the next … and some outright comedy scattered in between.
Lots of shows did that in the past, from “Lou Grant” to “L.A. Law”; fewer have tried lately.
“Almost Family” definitely tries. “I don’t shy away from bringing humor into serious subject matter,” said writer-producer Annie Weisman. “I think that’s how we live our lives.”
It was certainly how people lived on “Desperate Housewives,” where she was a writer-producer for two seasons. Created by a former comedy writer, it juggled moods skillfully.
Weisman went on to some standard comedies with so-so success, then – adapting an Australian series – found this middle ground with “Almost Family.”
We meet Julia, a redhead scrambling through life. She could have gone to medical school, but her dad (a noted fertility doctor) needed her after her mom died. Now she works for him; zipping around New York on her bicycle, she bumbles appealingly through the dating scene and work.
For its first eight minutes, “Almost Family” seems like a romantic comedy. Then Julia’s dad has a scandal and her world crumbles. The serious scenes work well, pitting:
— Tim Hutton as the dad. He’s been doing strong drama for almost four decades – from his Academy Award for “Ordinary People” to three extraordinary editions of ABC’s “American Crime.”
— Brittany Snow as Julia. Like Hutton, she did serious duty as a teen-ager. She starred in three “American Dreams” seasons, as a music-loving teen in a transforming, 1960s world.
Snow has juggled drama and comedy ever since, but said this role seems like a natural.
“I’m a lot more like Julia than anything I’ve ever played before,” she said. “I guess I’m clumsy and goofy …. I really like that Julia leads with her heart and she speaks before she thinks.”
Snow previously visited the comedy/drama border when she co-starred in “Harry’s Law,” about a crusty old lawyer who set up a storefront office. That was from David Kelley, a master of such things.
Kelley’s scripts can be dead-serious (“Big Little Lies,” “Mr. Mercedes”) or comic, but he’s at his best when combining the two for “Ally McBeal,” “Picket Fences,” “Boston Legal” and more.
There used to be a lot of shows that skipped deftly between light drama, heavy drama and comedy. Then cable and streaming shows – good, compelling ones – nudged everyone closer to the dark side.
Now even Archie Andrews — the sunniest guy in the comic-book world – is chasing serial killers on TV; he was a prison brawler, his pal Jughead is a gang-leader. And now CBS follows its Thursday comedies with a show as dark as its title suggests: “Evil.”
“Almost Family” isn’t up to the level of “Desperate Housewives,” “Lou Grant” or a Kelley show, but it does have moments of deep drama and solid humor. That requires deft writing and casting, especially with Snow, Hutton … and the surprising Emily Osment.
Some people know her from brash cable comedies (“Hannah Montana,” “Young and Hungry”), where volume was high and subtlety was scarce. But the flip side came with two serious roles in Chuck Lorrre comedies – a drug-addicted teen on “Mom” and an acting student on “The Kominsky Method.”
“I attribute that start of the journey to Chuck Lorre, who is just the master … of the drama and the levity,” Osment said.
Now she’s part of a mismatched almost-family. Roxy (Osment) is a spoiled ex-Olympian with a sports car and anger issues … Julia (Snow) is a people-pleaser with a bicycle and a felonious father … Edie (Megalyn Echikunwoke) is a hard-edged lawyer with a good-guy husband she avoids.
Throw them into the same apartment and you have multiple layers of drama with occasional comedy – sort of like TV in the past and real life any time.
— “Almost Family,” 9 p.m. Wednesdays, Fox; debuts Oct. 2