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TV Series Review

Jack Shea isn't exactly the handiest guy around. But when his gruff father, Tony, is sidelined from his handyman business due to heart attacks (he seems to suffer them like seasonal allergies), Jack comes back home to help.

Never mind that, by helping, Jack may begin suffering a few stress-related health problems of his own.

Oh, it's not the actual job so much. Jack can muddle through as long as he keeps away from nail guns. It's the people he's surrounded by—many of them in his own family.

He only has one employee, but the dude, Darren, is more trouble than an office full of disgruntled TV reviewers. Darren's lazy. He's shiftless. He has no appreciation for authority. And then there's Tony himself. If Darren can barely bring himself to start work, Tony can't seem to stop. He'll offer unsolicited advice, meddle with clients and sometimes show up at job sites. Never mind that when he's wheeled into the hospital these days, the staff probably greets him like the folks at Cheers used to holler "Norm!" (An EMT allows the whole family to ride with Tony in the ambulance because they're "good customers.")

Jack's Aunt Terry tries to help, but sometimes just makes things worse. And Jack ends up sharing a basement with Terry's 15-year-old songwriting, firecracker-obsessed son, Mason. Then there's—

Well, you get the idea. The Family Tools family is hardly in the gelatin mold of Home Improvement, where the jokes were gentle and most everyone landed on this side of normalcy. No, this ABC drama is more like  The Middle or  Parks and Recreation or The Office—where rare moment of sanity are overwhelmed by characters who probably own their own straightjackets. It's sitcom by caricature, where common human foibles are blown up to grotesque proportions. To paraphrase a line from Iron Man 3, we don't really go for subtlety these days.

That bold excess extends to the show's content. Darren's sister, Stitch, bawdily flirts with Jack whenever the mood strikes, spraying double entendres like Silly String. Serious topics—health and heart attacks, crime, substance abuse—become fodder for one-liners. Characters can be flat-out mean. Language can be rough. Run-ins with power tools can be bloody.

Family Tools can actually wrap episodes up in a nice, heartwarming bundle. The pilot has Tony showing gruff affection for Jack. Darren exhibits momentary competence. Mason offers a moral of sorts in a cheesy, badly sung song. It's a dysfunctional family that, through constant love, snippets of kindness and well-worn reserves of patience, trundles on as best it can—accepting and even embracing all the oddities that make its members so hard to live with in the first place.

That's a good example of how television is great at giving us two-minute smiley moments, hoping to mitigate the ick and ook that came before. "See, we're not so bad!" these endings insist. "We can be crass and family entertainment!" But while millions of viewers seem to be buying into that line of thought, it's not really true. The end—certainly not when it comes to sitcoms—can't so easily justify the means. And neither can inserting the word family in a title make a sitcom family fun.

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Episode Reviews

Family-Tools: 5-1-2013



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Kyle Bornheimer as Jack Shea; J.K. Simmons as Tony; Edi Gathegi as Darren; Johnny Pemberton as Mason; Danielle Nicolet as Stitch; Leah Remini as Terry






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On Video

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Paul Asay

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