Sons of Tucson debuts tonight on Fox at 9:30 p.m. EDT.
Sons of Tucson has a premise too potentially creepy for it to be as mediocre as it is. Don't get me wrong. This isn't a bad show. It's not a particularly good one either, but it's average enough that it would be pretty unobjectionable (and, honestly, fit rather well into the rather average Sunday night animated bloc) without the fact that its premise is … problematic. There's pretty much no way to think about this without coming back to the fact that the show feels vaguely embarrassed by its central idea and keeps trying to come up with ways to sweep it under the rug. But it's such a high-concept thing that it's not easily sweepable. This is one of those shows where the show IS the premise, and it's instructive, I think, in how it's unable to get rid of it.
The central concept of Sons of Tucson is that there are these three kids, and they're traveling around, doing various things, trying to stay one step ahead of the authorities, who might place them into foster care and split them up. This is a time-honored idea, and it's often been the center of any number of fun kids' books. (The Boxcar Children springs readily to mind.) If this were a light comedy about these kids, Malcolm in the Middle ripoffs that they are, traveling around and going from town to town to perform odd jobs and make just enough to scrape by, I guess it could be kind of fun. It would definitely have the feel of economic desperation the show as it now stands flirts with having but never actually pulls off.
But, no. This is TV. These kids are rich. Their dad is an investment banker who's gone to jail after some investment problems. (He stole from the rich to give it to the other rich and then stole from those rich people, in the words of one of the kids.) So they have basically unlimited funds to play around with, and now that they've landed in Tucson, they've realized that it's very hard to escape child services for very long without having some sort of parental figure. Thus, they've been combing the city to find just the right guy or girl to "play" their dad or mom for unsuspecting authorities, so they can go back to school and so on and so forth. (Why their immediate priority is going back to school is never immediately clear. I can get why anxious middle brother Gary, who's essentially an adult in a child's body, would want to go back, but I don't know why the other two just go along with it.)
Enter Tyler Labine as Ron Snuffkin, starring on an entirely different show altogether. In the early going of the show's pilot (airing tonight), it seems as though Sock from Reaper (whom Labine also played) has continued on as a character and just switched jobs. I get that Labine plays the poor man's Jack Black and plays him very well, but there's basically no attempt to distinguish Ron from every other character Labine has ever played before. So when the scrappy show about the kids surviving on their own collides with the broad comedy about the fat guy who falls down and goes boom, there's an internal struggle about which show will win, a struggle the series never really resolves or attempts to resolve.
I've seen three episodes of Sons of Tucson, and I've laughed a couple of times in that 70 minutes or so. The kids are all fairly well-drawn, though, as mentioned, they're basically the same types from Malcolm (minus one). This makes sense, since Justin Berfield, who played Reese on that show, is a producer here. The oldest child, Brandon, is pretty much just a Reese clone, down to what the actor (Matthew Levy) looks like. He's kind of a gleeful bully, but he's also a bit of a dolt. He'll post posters around the school designed to make his younger brother seem like a partying type whose catchphrase is "What up, slut," but he'll also believe that vampires actually exist and become afraid that there's a vampire in his neighborhood after reading Twilight. Still, Levy plays the character so well that it almost doesn't matter. He's having fun with the role, and that makes it seem a little less cliched than it should.
The middle brother, Gary (Frank Dolce), is the ostensible lead of the kids, and he's basically a Malcolm clone, only they've heightened the character's premature middle-agedness for presumably comic effect. Again, though, this isn't as funny as it could be. Youngest brother Robby (Benjamin Stockham) seems like he'll be a clone of Dewey, but the show does a nice job of elucidating his sociopathic tendencies, making you a little worried for just how dark he could become and showing, I guess, how having parental input could save him from a life of crime or something. The three boys are well-drawn enough that a show just about them could work.
Unfortunately, that show is smashed together with the show about Ron, and the series is always going to great lengths to make it seem like three kids paying a guy to pretend to be their dad is either heartwarming or totally, totally normal. Naturally, the show is trying to portray this whole deception as the way that Ron will learn to be a good person, possibly by enough to win the heart of Robby's teacher, Miss Morales (the weirdly-reminiscent-of-a-Hispanic-Olivia-Thirlby Natalie Martinez), but all of this TGIF-brand heartwarming comedy just obscures the fact that what's at the center of the show - a bunch of kids who have been let down by their parents and think they can do better on their own and a go-nowhere slacker who can't possibly help them even as hard as he tries - is really depressing.
I know I get a lot of guff around here for seeming to read some sort of depressing sadness into every comedy on the air, but I usually mean this as a good thing. I think that series that acknowledge the full range of their emotions tend to be capable of more powerful moments than shows that either ignore the entirety of their emotional range or live in a very limited range of emotions. In general, I think more earnestness is a good thing, though it sometimes can tip over into rank sentimentality. Now, I absolutely understand why Sons of Tucson wanted to find a way to be more than just another generic family sitcom. It wanted to recapture some of the immediacy that Malcolm had when it debuted, and to do that, it came up with a high-concept premise that ties into the economic woes we're all going through right now (and their inadvertent victims).
But the premise here works too hard to keep everything safe. This could be a very dark comedy with very funny moments. It could be a very broad comedy with very funny moments. Or it could be a very heartwarming comedy with very funny moments. Instead, it tries for a blend of all three of them, though it tends to underserve the dark, despairing nature of the premise. And because it's trying three such very different things all at once, the series ends up muffing all of them and muffing the humor. Sons of Tucson is an ambitious show that pretends to be just another family comedy, and that ends up being a recipe for a show that's always reminding you of just how strange its central idea is, a show that's as offputting as it is anything else.