LOS ANGELES, Oct. 6 (UPI) -- Happy families, Tolstoy once observed, are all alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. The unfunny and strangely close families in this season's new sitcoms are mostly unfunny in the same way: strained situations, phoning-it-in writing.
Sometimes, in fact, the dialogue is so inane you wonder why the writers even bothered to phone it in at all. Take ABC's "It's All Relative," a Boy-Meets-Girl farce and Lenny Clarke vehicle in which Boy has an Archie Bunker-ish Dad (Clarke) and Girl was raised by two gay guys.
"I TOLD you he was something out of a Bronte novel," the heroine gushes to her two dads about her fiance. "Nineteenth-century novels had sincere male characters."
Yes, like when Heathcliff dug up Cathy's dead body to look at it. That was sincere, all right, but probably not what prospective dads-in-law want to hear.
Then there's "Like Family" on the WB, in which a white juvenile delinquent is dragged by his single mom to live with her married black best friend's family to keep him out of trouble.
The humor here depends on lots of "Don't you SEE the resemblance?" lines, as callow white youth is dragged around by strict black foster dad. Each zinger is accompanied by scritchy-scritchy-get-DOWN music.
But two new sitcoms that actually are funny - NBC's "Happy Family" and ABC's "Married to the Kellys" - also center around strangely close families in strained situations. The difference is the writing.
"Happy Family" also benefits from the sizeable talents of two old sitcom pros, Christine Baranski and John Larroquette, as exasperated parents who wish their three grown children would hurry up and leave the nest already.
One son is having an affair with the older divorced woman next door. Another is engaged to two women. And their eternally dateless sister wears a cocktail dress to spend yet another evening playing board games with her parents, excitedly exclaiming, "It's Friday night!"
As the Baranski character wails in tart exasperation, "I'm beginning to think we didn't do a very good job."
Tartness, of course, is Baranski's stock in trade - she's best known as the hard-drinking best friend on the old "Cybill" show - and it's refreshing to see a TV mom who's acidly exasperated rather than endlessly understanding.
"It's actually fun to have played that kind of character," Baranski said at the NBC news conference of her "Cybill" days. "I can step on a plane and they'll say, 'Get you your martini as soon as we take off,' so there are perks."
"Happy Family" co-creators David Guarasio and Moses Port, veterans of "Just Shoot Me" and "Mad About You," see their new show as a belated Valentine to their parents.
"One day we were talking about what we were like in our 20s, which was just a complete mess," said Guarascio. "And being that we're both fathers now, we started to realize everything we put our parents through."
"You know what would be sweet?" Guarascio recalled thinking. "If we make a show that was a big apology to our parents for the crap we put them through, with the little P.S. of: By the way, all the manipulation and passive-aggressiveness didn't really help."
The premise of the autobiographical "Married to the Kellys" - Cynical New York writer (Breckin Meyer) moves to his new wife's native Kansas and becomes entirely too involved with her corny, overly close family - sounds nauseating but actually works.
That's probably because creator Tom Hertz -- who put in years writing for comics like Jon Stewart, Dennis Miller and Garry Shandling before seguing into sitcoms ("Spin," "Less Than Perfect")-- hasn't lost all his cynicism.
He has grown to love his Midwest in-laws, though, despite their predilection for rather suffocating togetherness.
"Susan would come upstairs," he said of his wife, "and go, 'What are you doing up here? Go downstairs and watch TV with my family.' And I would go, 'Why does it matter if I'm there or not? Are they facing the wrong way? Do I have to turn the TV around?'"
Or the family announces "We're all going to a movie!" Never mind what movie it is - everyone has to go. At the ABC news conference, I remarked to Mertz that this kind of forced togetherness really sounds sort of hideous.
Also, the mother-in-law character keeps a big magnetic board in her kitchen of dogs assigned to each family member. When one misbehaves, his dog moves into the doghouse. To me, that suggests a rather "Toys In the Attic" dark undercurrent to this family.
"Where are you from?" Hertz responded. "L.A. or New York? Yeah ..."
Hertz added that his wife's grandmother had an actual doghouse like that in her kitchen, the better to keep track of who'd been bad and who'd been good."
"And I'd like to say," added actress Nancy Lenehan, who plays the sweetly controlling mother-in-law, "that I spent some time in South Dakota, and I saw that actual item in a kitchen: Little Scottie dogs with names."
"In telling my friends about this show, more times than not I hear, 'Oh yeah, my Mom had one of those,'" Lenehan added. "I'd like to believe it's brilliant writing, but it's really out there."