Over its first three seasons, TBS” “My Boys” occupied an unusual position in my sitcom tastes, in that I only occasionally found it funny but enjoyed it anyway. The show was so laid-back and charming, and the chemistry among the cast so infectious, that I came to enjoy spending time in the company of sportswriter PJ Franklin (Jordana Spiro) and her (mostly male) friends so much that I was okay with the fact that I spent most of each episode smiling rather than laughing.
But because those occasional laughs usually came courtesy of co-star Jim Gaffigan as PJ”s brother Andy, and because Gaffigan left the show to spend more time on his stand-up career (and those of us who enjoy food-related stand-up can certainly appreciate that), I worried that the fourth season (which debuts Sunday at 10 p.m.) would feel too slight. Amiability only gets you so far, right?
And the first of Sunday”s two episodes seemed like it was going to confirm my fears. Andy”s job has transferred him out of Chicago, and after the guys all share their (mostly excellent) Gaffigan impressions in honor of his departure, PJ is faced with the problem of replacing him in her weekly poker game. It”s the show”s way of confronting the Gaffigan gap head-on, and also to discuss the kind of friendship dynamics the show deals with so well.
“This is a tough group to break into,” PJ”s friend Stephanie (Kellee Stewart) tells her, pointing out that she still isn”t privy to half the gang”s inside jokes even after spending so much time with them over the years.
The search for the new poker player is a clear waste of time, though (you”ll figure out the solution long before PJ does), and as we see flashbacks to how different members of the group met, I mostly found myself wishing Gaffigan would wander in with a random one-liner about his love of cheese.
Sunday”s second episode, however, along with a later episode TBS wisely sent out for review, suggests there”s life in the show even without the man who made us all appreciate the danger of Cinnabon.
First, the show deals with the inevitable tensions that arise when some members of a group of friends are in a couple – PJ with Bobby (Kyle Howard), Steph with Kenny (Michael Bunin) – and the rest – Brendan (Reid Scott) and Mike (Jamie Kaler) – aren”t. The couples want to go out to a sophisticated restaurant, while the singletons want to hang out, eat junk food and play video games. Midway through the episode, though, the roles somehow reverse (thanks in part to a plate of “big boy brownies”), and I was reminded that while Gaffigan brought most of the laughs, he didn”t bring all of them. (Kenny delivers a funny parody of a cornerman”s pep talk when Steph starts losing to PJ at Wii Boxing.)
The later episode is titled “The NTO,” which stands for “The Natural Tapering-Off” that any couple experiences after being together for a while, and while the concept itself feels like the show is trying too hard to coin a “Seinfeld”-esque phrase, Spiro (usually the show”s straight woman) gets to show off some stronger-than-expected comic chops (including a nice bit of slapstick) as PJ tries to rekindle Bobby”s passion.
The show”s still not a consistent laugh riot (it”s ideally situated in the summer, when it doesn”t have to compete for my affections with stronger comedies like “Parks and Recreation” or “Modern Family”), but it”s held up better than I expected without Gaffigan. And if I really miss him, I can always go to YouTube to watch his Hot Pockets routine.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org