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Home is not so sweet in Fox's 'Free Ride'

You can go home again after college. But while you might not pay rent to your parents, you'll probably pay a high psychic toll. Nothing comes for free on the highway of life, except, of course, traffic.

In Fox's ironically titled sitcom ''Free Ride," an Everygrad named Nate Stahlings pays with his sanity after boomeranging back to his folks' garage to ponder his future. What Nate expects to be a long period of R&R in suburban Missouri with Mom as his personal chef turns out to be a soul-, brain-, emotion-, ambition-, and pride-sucking experience. Alas, reconnecting with your inner teenager isn't always a nostalgic cruise down Main Street.

''Free Ride," which premieres tonight at 9:30 on Channel 25, isn't the worst bird in the sitcom tree. A twisted take on ''The Graduate," it's made of familiar slacker material that's slightly freshened with an improvisatory feel as the actors um-and-ah their way to their punch lines. And it's blissfully missing the canned laughs that make the likes of ''That '70s Show" so obnoxious. Still, ''Free Ride" is far from essential TV viewing, unless you've already reserved tickets for Matthew McConaughey's similarly themed movie ''Failure to Launch," which opens March 10.

When Nate (Josh Dean) arrives home, he quickly discovers that his mother and father are battling like children. Instead of receiving nurturance and guidance from these adults, he gets stuck playing a kind of parent to them. At a number of points they even share details of their sex life with him, as if he's their therapist. He writhes in discomfort, and Dean does a nice job of making that awkwardness and disappointment funny. The actor is well cast, as he effortlessly toggles between Ashton Kutcher-like boyishness and bored maturity.

Nate's dreams of regressing to his easy high school social life also burst, since his years at University of California at Santa Barbara have made him irrevocably different from those he knew as a teen. He finally starts hanging with a lovably doltish metal-head named Mark Dove (Dave Sheridan), who drives a tricked-out truck. The self-proclaimed ''Doveman" appoints himself Nate's ''personal party sherpa" and escorts him to beer parties that involve an inordinate number of high-fives.

No one is more surprised than Nate that he's out on the town with the caveman-like Dove, whom he knew vaguely in high school. But Dove may be able to help him land Amber (Erin Cahill), a local bank teller who has captured his fancy. The attraction and obstacles between Nate and Amber will clearly become one of the show's ongoing plots -- that is, if the show is ongoing. After tonight's cushy post-''American Idol" airing, ''Free Ride" will have to stand on its own merits in its regular time slot, Sundays at 8:30 p.m.

Going home again is not a new TV theme, especially since the economy has pushed so many people in their 20s back to their childhood bedrooms. Too many series to name have revolved around a return to the parental nest, from recent comedies featuring Ellen DeGeneres and Tom Cavanagh to dramas such as ''Six Feet Under," ''Judging Amy," and ''Providence." It's an all-purpose setup, bringing on culture clash, family dysfunction, and the appearance of old ghosts. Whether ''Free Ride" can make those symptoms of boomerang life distinct remains to be seen.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at

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