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Wednesday, April 3rd, 2013

'How to Live with Your Parents (For the Rest of Your Life)': It's Nice to Be Nice

How to Live with Your Parents (For the Rest of Your Life) premieres tonight at 9:30 p.m. eastern on ABC. Check your local cable box to confirm.

I really miss Ben & Kate. It wasn't only because the show had a bit of a weird streak (much longer than expected beats, 80 percent of Lucy Punch's dialogue), but because it was the television equivalent of a spring sun illuminating a room on a Sunday afternoon: the stakes were never high, the danger was never real — brother and sister and their friends and children were always going to be content with what they have rather than dwell on what they don't have by the end of the episode. It was just so damn nice without being treacly, a contemporary comedy without an edge without being toothless, not unlike Parks and Recreation.

And totally cancelled. Nobody watched that bear hug.

But now we have How to Live with Your Parents, ABC's mid-late season single camera comedy starring one of the more likable casts in recent memory. Based on the life of Rude Awakening creator and executive producer Claudia Lonow, Parents stars Sarah Chalke in her first leading role as Polly, a recently divorced mother of a seven-year-old daughter named Natalie, who is forced to live with her mother Elaine and stepfather Max, played by Elizabeth Perkins and Brad Garrett. In less than a minute into the pilot episode, we're transported to six months after the fateful day when Polly left her husband and find her still living at home with her daughter, working an unsatisfying job as a barista, and arguing with her parents on who to date and on the proper way to raise Natalie. Elaine and the actor Max are a bit self-absorbed you see, and they pretty much let Polly raise herself growing up, and because she is still able to breathe they must have done a good and proper parenting job, ignoring, you know, her divorce, her lack of happiness and a weird phobia of dogs.

As bleak and maybe hacky as the premise sounds, the show is very similar to the late Ben & Kate in its overall pleasantness and slightly good weird edge, and a lot of it has to do with the cast and the writers knowing how to write for them. Sarah Chalke's character after all does have friends at her job, and whenever her parents debate her on anything you get the feeling that they mean well. It's not surprising that Brad Garrett's character never comes off as threatening but not without some gravitas to his words — it's weirdly perfect how Max is just annoyed enough at his ex son-in-law for taking one of his root beers for it be funny, but he is not so annoyed that it is completely ridiculously stupid. Garrett knows his character very well; Max easily could have been made into a sad cartoon that perpetually lives in the world of old school Hollywood, but instead is a man who lets his dreams of rubbing elbows with a tuxedoed *insert your second favorite 1970s A-list celebrity* at a Friars Club roast dais fade gracefully whenever he helps his daughter out with his granddaughter. Elizabeth Perkins never explains what became of Celia on Weeds, but she nails the hippy dippy, "I don't believe in sides" eccentric Elaine by playing her assured and low-key instead of demonstratively manic.

But none of that would matter if the lead wasn't right. Sarah Chalke grew into her own and became one of the cooler neurotic characters out there over the course of Scrubs, and played the best not-the-mother of Ted Mosby's infinitely patient kids on How I Met Your Mother, even though she did that thing that made her definitely the not-mother. We are all better off for Chalke to be starring in a comedy, as her Polly is easy to root for — down but never fully defeated, prone to being flustered but never unhinged, vulnerable but not seemingly one step away from the insane asylum (Dr. Elliot Reid from the sixth season onward basically), and most importantly of all knows the master craft of uttering a punchline to its fullest capacity.

What is possibly even more exciting than Chalke back on television is that comedian Jon Dore is getting a shot at American sitcom stardom as Polly's ex-husband Julian. Dore you may know from his weird and great stand-up appearances on Conan with Rory Scovel, even though he should be best known for creating and starring in the great, silly The Jon Dore Television Show that aired in Canada and for a brief time on IFC in the States. Although this kind of sounds like an insult, Dore is perfect to play the ne'er-do-well loser ex-husband who spent rent money on adopting a highway, keeps finding excuses to hang out at his former parents-in-law's and ex-wife's house, and tries to make up for not being there for his daughter. Because it's ABC, it's never elaborated on what exactly "not being there" actually means, and Julian just comes off as a well meaning, slightly dumb, but capable of watching a child for a few hours weirdo. His character could very easily be written off after the first episode, but two subsequent episodes have actually given Dore's character more silly but not ridiculously so things to do that are closer to his comfort zone.

There's a lot to like about this show. Along with some voiceover narration from Polly, Parents uses telestrator graphics (not unlike Clarissa Explains it All, except only in white lettering and with no movement — all the more mature that way) to provide some backstory, and isn't afraid to use some interesting shaky camera movements to try to capture a character's uncomfortable situation, giving it a modern day feel and some elasticity to try some out-of-the-box stuff down the line. The characters are all treated with respect, and after a little bit light on laughs pilot (most pilots are because they're too busy trying to introduce everybody) the jokes are delivered promptly and professionally like an above average network sitcom would in later episodes ("No offense, but all of your friends look like various stages of Kenny Rogers"). It doesn't break the mold, but How to Live with Your Parents is comfort food that wont make you feel like a dumb fatass afterwards.