There really hasn’t been enough distance since the spate of execrable blue-collar-guy-with-hot-wife sitcoms dominated network television — did the cosmos really need to bestow the gift of residual checks on Jim Belushi? — but I’m hooked on the arrhythmic, improvisational charms of Spike TV’s new show The Factory, which debuted last weekend. It’s the guy-ethos network’s first situation comedy, but rather than being another macho paean to unrepentant slobdom, it skirts the edge of small-town despair and midlife-crisis brokenness with wry humor.

The show comes from Strangers With Candy co-creator Mitch Rouse, who also stars as one of four buddies toiling away in a punchclock-and-overalls world that seems more precarious — economically and soul-killingly — with each passing day. Although there’s plenty of male-bonding shtick, some of the jokes hint at wonderfully dark pools of paranoia and the ability of stressed-out adults to barely function. When their foreman dies horrifically after his tie gets caught in a pneumatic bander, Gary (Rouse) says at the funeral reception that the machine killed him, but his pal Smitty (David Pasquesi) – an excitable sort with an overactive imagination — fervidly jumps in to blame the neckwear: “The machine took the tie. He went into the machine through the tie. The machine used the tie to get him into the machine.”

The show’s depiction of thwarted ambition is also sharp: Given the opportunity by the big boss for one of them to take the foreman’s position, the quartet meagerly try to backstab each other before agreeing the real responsibility of the bump-up isn’t worth it. Who wants more work? As for women, naturally they’re all having problems — what would a comedy like this be without gripes about females — but I have a feeling The Factory will enjoy undercutting any expected misogyny with the reliable diversion of beaten-down-by-life jokes. Gary, for instance, hopes he’ll catch his wife banging the cable guy so he has a reason to kick her out. “Do you think she’s banging the cable guy?” asks Smitty. “No,” says Gary. “We don’t have cable.”

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