Surviving Jack, a new sitcom premiering tonight on Fox, gives Christopher Meloni a chance to show off his formidable comedy chops after intense dramatic turns in HBO’s prison saga Oz and NBC’s long-running police drama Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
Based on an autobiographical book by Justin Halpern and set in 1991, Surviving Jack stars Meloni as gruff oncologist Dr. Jack Dunlevy, who has decided to cut back his hours at his clinic so he can take over parenting his two teenage kids while his wife, Joanne (Rachael Harris), pursues her long-delayed dream of law school. Their daughter, Rachel (Claudia Lee), is mildly irritated by this household change, but her younger brother, high-school freshman Frankie (Connor Buckley), frets that his dad, an ex-military man, will now have even more opportunities to make his life difficult.
That’s a rational concern, given that Jack has been known to send his son out to run laps in the middle of the night and plants a large box of condoms in Frankie’s booksack to embarrass him at school. And while Jack dotes on his wife, he seems to harbor more ambivalent feelings toward Frankie.
“I love that woman,” Jack sighs, watching Joanne leave for class. “If an asteroid were to hit this Earth, and she and I were the only two people left alive, I’d be OK.”
“What about me?” Frankie asks.
“Well, obviously, there would be a grieving period,” Jack replies. “I’m not an ass.”
Halpern previously adapted another book into the ill-fated CBS sitcom euphemistically called Bleep My Dad Says, which also featured a crusty father figure who was a doctor, played on that show by William Shatner. Surviving Jack is a far more polished sitcom that makes even better use of its time period than ABC’s similarly themed The Goldbergs (there’s a funny running gag about Michael Crichton’s then-red-hot book Jurassic Park recurring in tonight’s pilot episode).
It helps, too, that Meloni has the good sense to underplay Jack’s bluntness. The character never shouts at his children, he just doesn’t mince any words or waste any tact in dealing with them.
My only concern is that tonight’s premiere seems to be too much of a one-trick pony that depends too much on ways that Jack benignly tortures Frankie. Some of it is laugh-out-loud funny, but I hope Surviving Jack will develop more of an ensemble feel in the weeks to come. Certainly Harris, a sitcom staple who also has a hilarious recurring role on USA Network’s Suits, is far too bright a comedy performer to remain stuck in the role of a largely absent mom. Buckley also is a real find as Frankie, although it’s stretching credibility to buy him as a freshman in high school.
Those minor quibbles aside, the prospects of Jack surviving look pretty good right now.