The label “family television” is typically applied to programs that are saccharine and risk-free—adjectives that hardly apply to Sons & Daughters, a sensational new sitcom that is one of the few current series to reflect the reality of American families in the era of the 50 percent divorce rate. Exploring a complicated network of siblings, in-laws, ex-spouses and stepchildren, this partially improvised treasure plays like a cross between Curb Your Enthusiasm and the postdivorce relationship drama Once and Again. ABC will air two episodes every Tuesday through Apr 11.
At the center of the web are Cameron (Fred Goss, who cocreated the series with Nick Holly) and Sharon (Alison Quinn), a brother and sister in their early forties who are both united and divided by the travails of their mother (Dee Wallace) and stepfather (Max Gail). Cameron is a more realistic version of the classic doofus sitcom dad, a Deadhead turned suburbanite who gets caught in the middle of endless family boondoggles. His parents’ marriage is collapsing, Sharon and her husband (Jerry Lambert) are stuck in a no-sex holding pattern, and his ditzy, much younger half-sister (Jenna Walsh) is torn between her baby’s daddy and her love-struck boss. The improv element keeps the dialogue fresh and believable: The kids don’t sound like miniature adults and the old-timers really sound like people who’ve weathered years of domestic storms.
Although the series is flush with honest emotion, the accumulation of quirky details keeps the laughs coming (Cameron and Sharon’s discussion of money, for example, somehow morphs into an analysis of their mother’s gnarly toes). Equally noteworthy is how humor is milked from the suburban Cincinnati setting without condescension or pandering. Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” serves as the theme song, and its rousing chorus couldn’t fit the tone better.—Andrew Johnston