ABC leans on levity in lineup tonight

Posted Sept. 22, 2009, at 7:41 p.m.

Funny sitcoms on ABC? Isn’t that a sign of the Apocalypse?

How bad had things gotten? Last season, ABC’s best sitcom was “Scrubs,” which the network picked up after fourth-place NBC had discarded it. ABC then renewed it after the series had supposedly wrapped up for good, with its cast scattering to the winds.

But now ABC actually has the potential for a comedy block, the linchpin of which will be “Modern Family,” debuting at 9 tonight.

“Modern Family” features vignettes from three different family units. First, there’s Jay (Ed O’Neill), who is married to a much younger, Latina divorcee, Gloria (Sofia Vergara). He has become stepfather to her sensitive, overweight 11-year-old son, Manny, whom he fears for because of Manny’s dramatic tendencies.

Then there’s Phil (Ty Burrell) and Claire (Julie Bowen) and their three kids: an easily exasperated teenage girl (is there any other kind?); the too-bright younger daughter; and a dim-bulb son. Phil wants to be the “cool dad,” while Claire struggles to instill some discipline in their brood.

Finally, there’s Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and his longtime flamboyant partner, Cameron (Eric Stonestreet), who have just adopted a baby girl from Vietnam.

Any of these situations on their own would have comedic gold to be mined. But when the three groups get together, the fun really begins.

“Modern Family” works because its creators, Emmy winners Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd, know comedy, with such series as “Frasier,” “Wings” and “The Larry Sanders Show” among their credits.

If they can carry forward the momentum from this premiere, then “Modern Family” could be in for a long run.

Another winning comedy, “Cougar Town,” follows “Modern Family.” The sitcom stars Courtney Cox, who has made the transition from a twentysomething bundle of neuroses in “Friends” to a fortysomething bundle of neuroses in this new series.

Cox plays Jules, a recently divorced single mother whose idea of a good time on Friday night is a few glasses of wine and a game of Scrabble with Ellie (Christa Miller), her best friend from next door. She’s trying to be a good mom to her teen son Travis (Dan Byrd), and can’t seem to escape her ex-husband, Bobby (Brian Van Holt), a failed golf pro.

When Jules sees her divorcee neighbor Grayson (Josh Hopkins) bringing home a series of 20-year-olds, she snaps. She decides to take the advice of her younger co-worker Laurie (Busy Phillips), and get back in the game, and the two of them go clubbing.

She hooks up with a much younger man, and finds out what she has been missing for the past couple of decades. High jinks ensue as Jules ends up in some compromising situations, much to her son’s horror.

This setup could go very wrong in the wrong hands. Fortunately, the man in charge is Bill Lawrence (“Scrubs”), its co-executive producer, writer and director, and “Cougar Town” is remarkably nuanced, subtly making statements about beauty and aging in today’s society.

After that, ABC is hoping for something magical to happen at 10 p.m. with “Eastwick.”

“Eastwick” is an updated version of the novel “The Witches of Eastwick,” by the late John Updike, as well as 1987 movie based on the book.

Three women who are casual acquaintances in the small seaside village of Eastwick find themselves drawn together. They are artist Roxie (Rebecca Romijn), nurse Kat (Jamie Ray Newman) and reporter Joanna (Lindsay Price).

The force behind this new friendship is soon revealed to be millionaire Darryl Van Horne (Paul Gross, south of the border for the first time since “Due South”). He goes about figuratively seducing the three women, all of whom have special abilities of which they’re unaware, despite the warning of a town elder, Bun (Veronica Cartwright).

The premiere does an admirable job of establishing the characters, but gives nary a hint of what’s to come. Producers Maggie Friedman and David S. Rosenthal (“Gilmore Girls”) have strong track records, so “Eastwick” is in capable hands. Still it’s going to take some kind of magic for “Eastwick” to enchant enough viewers willing to leave behind “CSI: NY” and Jay Leno.

NBC is offering something different at 8 tonight, with the premiere of “Mercy.”

It would be easy to dismiss it as another medical show, but it’s really more of a working-girl drama.

Veronica Callahan (Taylor Schilling) has returned after a tour in Iraq to her job as a registered nurse at an urban hospital. The combative Veronica is attempting to make the adjustment to civilian life with the aid of booze and “beautiful Paxil.”

She has left her juvenile husband, Mike (Diego Klattenhoff), after finding out he cheated on her while she was gone, moving back into the home of her alcoholic parents (Peter Gerety and Kate Mulgrew). But she spends most of her time in the company of her fellow nurses, sexy Sonia (Jaime Lee Kirchner), newbie Chloe (Dawn Trachtenberg) and gay Angel (Guillermo Diaz), either at Mercy Hospital or a nearby neighborhood bar. Then her somewhat ordered world gets upset by a secret that has followed her home from Iraq.

“Mercy” does an nice job striking a balance between Veronica’s work and home. Based on content, it probably should have been pushed back an hour, but thanks to NBC’s ill-conceived experiment with Leno, which moved “Law & Order: SVU” forward an hour, that’s not possible anymore.

As the only drama in its time slot, “Mercy” has a perfect opportunity to make its mark.

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