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Glenn Martin, DDS, airs new episodes every night this week at 8 p.m. EDT/7 p.m. CDT on Nickelodeon.

Ever since the network got its start, Nickelodeon has struggled with how to blend its kid-friendly programming of the day with the classic TV shows it airs at night, under the Nick at Nite banner. In the early days of Nick at Nite, the network used classic kids TV shows like Lassie to ease into the rerun zone, and in Nick at Nite’s heyday (roughly the early to mid-90s), it used the fantasy sitcoms of the ‘60s, like Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, to gradually siphon off the kids and transition to letting their parents watch the sitcoms they grew up with.

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But as Nickelodeon passed from a network that kids more or less put on to pass the time (and I was one of them) to a genuine cultural institution, the mission statement of Nick at Nite has become less clear. The sub-station now programs original series, and the “classic” shows it broadcasts often are shows that ended less than 10 years ago, like The George Lopez Show or Everybody Hates Chris, coming this fall. Chris, for example, is a really good show and one that deserved a fairer shake than it got on The CW, but it’s hard to see how it fits with the established Nick at Nite brand, other than the fact that in its deliberate embrace of family sitcom dynamics, it was a show that felt like it belonged in an earlier television age. As the Nick at Nite imprint has had trouble redefining itself to be more compatible with the Nickelodeon of today, that transition from daytime to primetime programming has gotten even trickier.

This, perhaps, is why Nick has greenlit Glenn Martin, DDS, a new animated sitcom about a dentist who takes his family on the road in an attempt to foster togetherness, which is the only reason any family goes on a road trip in any movie or TV show. The series boasts a pleasantly retro look, which feels like a throwback to any number of Rankin-Bass holiday specials, a quasi-modern sensibility and a surprisingly strong voice cast for a Claymation show Nick at Nite appears to be attempting to burn off. Kevin Nealon voices the title character, while Catherine O’Hara essays his wife, Jackie, and Judy Greer plays Wendy, the girl the Martins’ daughter Courtney employs as a personal assistant or something. That’s a lot of comedic talent to throw at a show that occasionally feels like an attempt to mash-up The Simpsons and Arrested Development but also throw in a rickety laugh track that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Scooby Doo rerun.

Monday’s premiere tosses the audience right into the action, as Glenn grows so irritated with his family’s reliance on technology that he drags them to Amish country and then stupidly strands them there by accidentally throwing the keys to his RV into the middle of a corn field. His family, of course, is horrified by this and the fact that they have to live among the Amish until he can find the keys. Just as predictably, though, as time goes by, they find themselves coming to enjoy the Amish way of life, all except Glenn, whose idea it was to live among the Amish in the first place. Jackie becomes friends with Amish versions of the Sex and the City girls (and I can’t decide if it’s a sly joke or just tired that Glenn and Jackie’s favorite TV shows feel a few years out of date), including a horse. Daughter Courtney and her assistant Wendy figure out a way to monetize the Amish’s cheap labor. And son Conor falls in love with a local spinster, who’s only 16, and is to be wed to her but only if Glenn doesn’t have anything to say about it. The family dog is even happier in Amish country and swallows the keys at a specific point in the action to keep everyone from leaving.

This is all fairly normal family sitcom humor. It wouldn’t feel out of place in an episode of Perfect Strangers, as a matter of fact. What is supposed to set the show apart, I guess, is the animation, which at least looks different from other animated shows on television and boasts some lovingly detailed miniature sets that look like dollhouse pieces. The character design walks a line between goofy caricature and accurate representation, and everything about the show has a lovingly crafted feel to it, as though this were some sort of labor of love from someone who’s always had a dream of making a show about a road tripping dentist. Because nothing here is too far out, some will probably call the production design ugly, but I kind of liked its low-fi aesthetic, and I definitely liked how it doesn’t really look like any other animated show on the dial.

Yet, at the same time, it’s easy to wish that the same level of craftsmanship that was dumped into the scripts. All of the punchlines here are fairly easy to spot coming your way from several miles away, and the obviously fake laugh track makes them even more insulting. Every so often, there will be an inspired bit of lunacy at the edge of one of the frames (like how the Amish village has a store called Crate and Barrel) that becomes less inspired when the show feels compelled to point that joke out and say why, exactly, it’s so funny. I rarely feel like the use of a laugh track is somehow insulting to me as a viewer because I get that laugh tracks are used to increase the feel of that communal experience that makes watching a live, stage comedy so enjoyable. But here, where the jokes are so bad and there’s no immediate reason to have a laugh track, it does feel just a touch insulting.

None of this is to besmirch the stuff that works on the show. The voice cast is largely capable, and Nealon does surprisingly adept work as Glenn, a family man pushed to his limit by his crazy kids, doncha know. Greer also finds a lot of fun to be had with the obsequious toadying of Wendy (her throwaway delivery of “I worship you” makes the whole thing almost worthwhile). Plus, while the show’s story development isn’t exactly original, it’s nice to see someone resurrecting old classics like “family goes on vacation and gets in touch with the locals” and not turning them into fodder for some sort of snarkfest.
 
But as a whole, Glenn Martin probably needs just a few more tweaks. There’s an interesting idea here for a show that could finally be the one that closes the gap between Nickelodeon and Nick at Nite, but it’s just not fully realized yet. There’s a moment midway through tonight’s episode where Glenn comes across a crazed Amish dentist, and the sheer maniacal gleam the show gets in its eye when it indulges in that sort of craziness briefly brings the whole enterprise to life. Glenn Martin would do better to embrace its cartooniness. By trying to play more to its sitcom side, the series often feels as if it’s operating with one hand tied behind its back.

Grade: C+

Stray observations:

  • I do like that the opening credits sequence just lays out the entire premise of the show in case you couldn’t figure it out. I miss the premise theme song.
  • Also, I kind of liked that one of the Amish Sex and the City girls was a horse. I suspect this is supposed to be really mean or something, but I just kind of liked the absurdism of it.
  • Was that Lacey Chabert as the Amish spinster? I forgot to check.
  • OK, yeah, everyone is going to be interested in this show because it comes from Michael Eisner, but, to be honest, I had trouble telling it was from his production company.
  • So are these episodes being aired out of order? Because this felt more like a second episode, following a pilot that set up the premise, than it did a proper first episode.

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