NBC’s mother/daughter sitcom Kath & Kim arrives this week as the network’s final piece in its Thursday-night comedy puzzle, with a few of the series’ elements seemingly preconditioned to fit snugly with its schedule mates. Like The Office, it’s an Americanization of a wildly popular sitcom from another country, this time Australia. Like 30 Rock’s Tina Fey, star Molly Shannon is a Saturday Night Live alum. And like My Name Is Earl, Kath & Kim has a fervid belief in the laugh-generating power of trashy, clueless white people.
Set in an Orange County suburbiverse where mornings are for tabloid flipping, afternoons are for mall prowling and a good night is all about Applebee’s, the show arranges a battle of wills between Kath, a middle-aged divorcée (Shannon) happily on a self-actualization tear with an attentive new beau (John Michael Higgins), and her bratty 20-something spawn, Kim (Selma Blair), a pea-brained narcissist who suddenly moves back home after a petty spat with her husband, Craig (Mikey Day).
The Australian series, written by its stars, Gina Riley and Jane Turner (who are executive producers here as well), and often shown here on the Sundance Channel, was a fly-on-the-wall gem shot on real locations, like an extended videotaped local news segment from the front lines of kitsch. Miraculously, condescension was as absent in the original show as its characters’ lifestyle tastes. In transferring the concept to the heightened, filmic qualities of prime-time American television, though, something is lost. Sometimes what’s missing is a sense that the characters’ little victories matter beyond the writers’ love of pointing and laughing (a sensitivity Earl is quite good at), and sometimes it’s just the laughs themselves that aren’t there.
Not that the American Kath & Kim doesn’t have its moments. Shannon has a power-walker approach to the comedy of unearned positivity — not too fast, not too slow, able to suck up disappointment and move on — and it works for her character. But Blair, who can breathe hot snark on any line, hasn’t quite figured out how to make Kim hideously funny more often than just hideous.