Sitcoms so often fall into that chasm between sweet and treacle. Clueless dads, overwhelmed moms and precocious kids tumble in, and no amount of mugging rescues them.
NBC’s “Growing Up Fisher” deftly veers from the treacle yet is unabashedly sweet. Previewing Sunday after the Closing Ceremony of the XXII Winter Olympics, it then settles into the NBC schedule at 9:30 p.m. Tuesdays.
“Growing Up Fisher” is the story of the love a son has for his dad. Jason Bateman narrates, and it’s told from 11-year-old Henry’s (Eli Baker) perspective of having a great dad, Mel (J.K. Simmons), who never met an obstacle he couldn’t overcome.
“Do you have any idea how hard it is having a father who’s a blind lawyer?” said creator DJ Nash, who based this on his dad. “I couldn’t complain about anything. You know, like, ‘Dad, I’m having trouble with my book report.’ (And his response would be) ‘I went to law school blind.’ ”
An immediate and apt comparison would be to “The Wonder Years.” The only slightly confusing part in this otherwise delightful comedy is that Bateman is Eli as an adult, looking back on himself as a child, but the show is set in the present. Is he talking to us from the future?
However, the rest of the pilot – a portrait of a family in transition as the parents divorce, and Dad is forced to come out as a blind man – works beautifully. Mel had kept his blindness a secret from everyone but his clan.
What shines through, said Jenna Elfman (“Dharma & Greg”), who plays mom Joyce, is how genuine the story is.
“I liked that it was uncynical and sincere,” she said. “Sincerity permits the offbeatness. It is very important to DJ that this show honors his father.”
Mel is a smart, responsible man who deserves honor. He does not use a cane or a dog to guide him. Henry is proud to help him.
Determined to be a great father and do what other dads would do, Mel cuts down a tree with a chain saw and teaches his teenager to drive. Those scenes are funny without being callous.
Mel also doesn’t wear dark glasses, and Simmons (“The Closer”) does a wonderful job of appearing blind.
“I was hoping they would make it easy (and let him wear sunglasses),” Simmons said.
Simmons said he concentrates on “getting his eyes out of focus and keeping them out of focus. He has a sense of the visual world as opposed to people born blind.”
The shock is that Mel was able to keep this secret for so long, but when he moves out, everything changes.
Joyce, Elfman’s character, had become pregnant on their second date and spent her adult life being a mom and wife.
“Now she’s starting out on her own and doesn’t know what that is,” Elfman said. “Just when her daughter needs a mother, the mother is being a teenager.”
As Joyce experiments with who she is beyond a mother and wife, she debates whether to join Instagram, which mortifies daughter Katie (Ava Deluca-Verley). While shopping, mother and daughter pick out the same outfits.
Mel needs to settle into his new apartment, adjust to the guide dog and reassure his kids he will always be there for them.
“One of the things I was sensitive about is how we find the humor in a blind guy and not be tasteless,” Simmons said. While working on the sixth episode, Simmons said, he needn’t have worried. “This is basically a love letter to his dad.”