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Psych Ward Cleavers 

Weird family comedies are in.

Neither do “Cracking Up” and “The Stones” mirror real life, at least not as most of us know it. Generally speaking, sitcoms are funnier than real life – even the bad sitcoms. But the people who think up ideas for new sitcoms have to reach much farther for a laugh now than in the “Brady Bunch” and “Partridge Family” days.

Which brings us to the kind of plotline necessary for a family sitcom to get on a broadcast network now. In “Cracking Up,” the wealthy Shackletons of Beverly Hills hire a psychology grad student to be a live-in counselor for their introverted 11-year-old son. The twist, revealed in the pilot episode, is that the kid is introverted because the rest of the family is cartoonishly loony.

In “The Stones,” two young adults live at home with their parents, coping with the obstacles that family intimacy can throw in the way of maturity. The twist here, however, is that the parents love each other but can’t stand each other. So they’re getting a divorce. But Dad’s not disappearing, he’s just moving into the room over the garage.

While both new series strain their premises almost to the breaking point, there are funny moments to be found. In “Cracking Up,” for example, the father (Chris McDonald) asks the mother (Molly Shannon), “You’re not happy with our sex life all of a sudden?” After a slow take almost worthy of Jack Benny, she answers, “Well, no, not all of a sudden.” And on “The Stones,” the slacker daughter (Lindsay Sloane) tells her total-geek brother (Jay Baruchel), “Don’t worry about me. I have a place to sleep. ... as long as it hasn’t been towed.”

But the laughs come more frequently in “Cracking Up,” which is more cerebral than “The Stones.” Like “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “The Larry Sanders Show,” “Cracking Up” also takes the risk of working without the TV equivalent of a net. There is no studio audience or laugh track to signal the funny parts.

Each show has talented veterans in the adult roles as well as decent creative pedigrees. “Cracking Up” has McDonald (“Family Law”) and Shannon (“Saturday Night Live”) as the loopy parents, along with Jason Schwartzman (“Rushmore”) as the psychology grad student. “The Stones” stars Emmy Award-winner Judith Light (“Who’s the Boss”) as the overbearing mother and Robert Klein (“Hooper”) as the nebbishy father. Oh, and the kids are all really cute. “Cracking Up” was created by Mike White (“School of Rock”), and “The Stones” is a product of the minds of Jenji Kohan (“Tracey Takes On”), David Kohan (“Will & Grace”) and Max Mutchnick (“Will & Grace”).

Trouble is, while both are mildly amusing — with Fox’s entry being the droller of the two — neither new series really rises to the status of appointment TV, or even to the level of this season’s wacky-family trendsetter, Fox’s “Arrested Development.” You won’t find yourself turning down a dinner invitation to stay home and watch either one. They’re merely footsteps in the sands of TV time – and not very big ones at that. S

“Cracking Up” airs Monday nights at 8:30 on Fox-TV. “The Stones” airs Wednesday nights at 9:30 on CBS-TV.

Letters to the editor may be sent to: letters@styleweekly.com


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