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Grammer-Lawrence sitcom has mouldy '70s stink

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Back in the 1970s, Jack Klugman and Tony Randall struck TV-sitcom gold playing complete opposites -- one a neat freak, the other a slob -- forced by circumstance to coexist.

As The Odd Couple's fastidious Felix and oafish Oscar, the pair enjoyed five successful seasons in roles originally created, first for stage and then for the big screen, by playwright Neil Simon. Despite nearly being cancelled several times, The Odd Couple ran for 114 episodes and is remembered by nostalgia-TV fans as one of the best sitcoms of its era.

This week, a couple of TV-comedy veterans -- Kelsey Grammer and Martin Lawrence -- launch a new but decidedly retro comedy with Odd Couple-ish inclinations. Partners, which premières Thursday at 7 p.m. on Global, doesn't match up to The Odd Couple in terms of quality or lead-actor chemistry, but there is one quality it does share with that decades-earlier series: jokes that seem like they must have been written in the '70s.

In Partners, Lawrence and Grammer play guys on the far-opposite ends of the neat/sloppy continuum -- only in this case, rather than personal hygiene and living-quarters cleanliness, it's vastly different ethics and morals that make them an unlikely pair.

Both are lawyers; Allen Braddock (Grammer) is so crooked that his own father just fired him from the family firm, while Marcus Johnson (Lawrence) is such a bend-over-backwards honest guy that he's about to let his soon-to-be-ex-wife take him to the cleaners in a divorce settlement.

Their paths cross in a courtroom, when a judge who hates Allen's sleazy tactics orders him to observe the behaviour of the next attorney on the docket -- Marcus -- to see what lawyering is supposed to look like.

Instead of a lesson, Allen gets an idea: he'll use his rule-bending skills to help Marcus get a fair shake in the division of marital assets if Marcus will apply his help-the-little-guy attitude to the pro bono caseload the judge has just dropped in his lap. And just like that, a sitcom tandem is born.

It's the classic mismatched-buddy comedy framework -- they don't like each other; they don't understand each other; but they do need each other. It's a setup that affords TV scriptwriters any number of directions to explore in the search for laughs, but Partners' producers opt solely for a back-in-time direction.

The jokes are tired, and the laughs that inevitably follow them feel artificially sweetened by laughtrack overlay. In the pilot, Allen convinces Marcus that they need to embark on an undercover caper to expose his estranged wife's new live-in relationship; in the series' second episode, the pair pretends to be a gay couple booking a wedding in order to blow the whistle on a shady event planner.

Both instalments are filled with setups and punchlines that are much more likely to prompt groans and eyerolls than out-loud laughter.

In the première, when Marcus learns his wife has taken up with a church minister, his outraged reaction is, "The entire time, she's sleeping with Father Francis, giving him a second coming!" In the second episode, while trying to discourage a gay couple from suing the woman who wrecked their wedding, Allen observes that he thinks they're "making a Brokeback Mountain out of a molehill."

And those, sadly, are among Partners' better jokes.

The series is produced for U.S. cable's FX network, employing the same unique "10-90" production model that made Charlie Sheen's Anger Management an efficient low-budget moneymaker. The model calls for 10 episodes to be shot and aired; if they meet a certain ratings level, an order for an additional 90 episodes is triggered, with the shows being shot at a breakneck two-per-week pace that allows the entire 100-episode catalogue to be completed within a couple of years.

It creates a rather interesting opportunity for Grammer and Lawrence -- Partners isn't very good, but it really doesn't have to be to have a chance at meeting FX's modest ratings goal and landing an automatic 90-episode renewal and a rather sizable payday for a relatively short-term commitment.

By contemporary TV-comedy standards, this is a pretty clumsy effort. Compared to the '70s sitcom that seems to have inspired it, however, Partners seems pretty much in tune with the times. Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 6, 2014 C3

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