New family dynamics in the 21st-century are the themes of two ABC sitcoms that debut Sept. 23 on KTVX Channel 4, although stylistically the shows are working in such different comedy styles.
"Modern Family" (8 p.m.) » Your initial reaction to this comedy about three disparate families may be that it's a stylistic rip-off of "The Office" or "Parks and Recreation" -- and you'd be right.
Like those two comedies, "Modern Family" is told as a faux-documentary, with shaky, handheld camera work peeking in on the lives of three families as they try to juggle everyday situations. Interspersed with the action are interviews with the characters, similar to the confessionals that break up episodes of "Survivor."
But "Modern Family" shares something else with those NBC comedies -- it's often funny.
Among the families is the "typical" household of mother/father/three kids (headed by Ty Burrell and Julie Bowen), a gay couple that just adopted a Vietnamese baby (Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Eric Stonestreet), and an older man (Ed O'Neil) and his much younger, sexy wife (Sofia Vergara).
Sure, it's questionable whether the show's producers should have copied the "mockumentary" format first featured in the British version of "The Office," but "Modern Family" has made the right choices where it matters most -- good casting with likeable actors and writing that's funny and not too far off the mark from real-life family encounters. So far, these are families worth visiting every week, no matter how the story's told.
"Cougar Town" (8:30 p.m.) » The return of Courtney Cox ("Friends") to comedic television must be all the more scary for her because the success of this sitcom about a middle-aged divorcee rests solely on her.
Fortunately, she's up to the challenge, even if the writing doesn't display the same ambitions.
Cox plays Jules, a recently divorced single mom and real estate agent who decides to start playing the field, despite her newly sagging skin (no matter what the writers tell us, Cox does NOT look old), her rusty dating skills and a teen-age son who doesn't want to be embarrassed.
In the pilot, Jules puts herself back on the market but experiences challenges along the way. There is the hunkish neighbor across the street showing off his prowess with younger women, the pushy friend who bugs her to go out, and her son who walks in on her during a night of passion.
The comedy seems a bit forced in the first half hour -- the only episode available to critics before the show's debut -- but the real reason to watch is for Cox's likeable and easy-going presence, a style she has mastered on the career-making "Friends."
Whether the writing and situations can catch up to her charisma is the question, but I plan to hang out with this anxious cougar a little longer to find out.