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TV Series Review

For decades, networks have followed a singular family-sitcom formula: eccentric, bumbling dad plus level-headed mom plus a gaggle of kids (one of whom is usually a smart-mouthed teenager) equals sure laughs. CBS’ latest concoction, Listen Up, has all of those ingredients.

The show is inspired by the life of sportswriter and acerbic ESPN personality Tony Kornheiser (played by Seinfeld’s Jason Alexander). Onscreen, Tony’s wife is the composed Dana (Wendy Makkena), whose angelic job of raising funds for charities matches her seemingly divine mothering style and otherworldly wisdom. Daughter Megan is a sassy, mall-shopping teenager embarrassed by her dad’s every breath. And 15-year-old son Mickey turns out to be an air-headed golf prodigy.

Listen Up’s characters have little dimension, and its story lines are painfully predictable. Though Tony’s goofy antics change with each episode, most plots involve a parenting dilemma. One week he’s chauffeuring Megan in a stolen Hummer so she’ll like him. The next he’s pushing Mickey to finish a golf tournament and collect the trophy, even though the boy has just swallowed a bee.

All the while, Tony serves as the target of virtually every joke made at home and work, sending him on a never-ending quest to gain the respect of his family and peers. When the jokes dissipate, the household’s ever-present fountain of serenity, Dana, sheds light on the situation for her misguided husband. Everyone kisses and makes up, and all is well until next week.

Granted, the show’s moral lessons are honorable: Family comes first. Friendships matter. Wives deserve respect. Even sports get put in their rightful place as mere games. But Listen Up’s savior is also its downfall. While young viewers may think Dana the perfect mom, she silently undermines Tony’s efforts to gain respect from his children by way of “Who, me?” glances and interjections of laissez-faire leniency. Tony makes a fool of himself while she remains the “cool” parent, apparently saving her energy to conclude each episode with a saintly monologue.

This good parent/bad parent game results in a household lacking leadership and a show full of mixed messages. Every week this dad bumble in vain. And every week we’re left wondering if sitcom families will ever break the mold.

Episodes Reviewed: Sept. 20, 27, Oct. 4, 11, 18, 25, Nov. 8, 2004

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