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'Sons' is loopy and sweet

There's a lot of Big Talk about TV comedy these days. Sitcoms are dead again; they're alive again; they're dying to live but no one's watching them. But somewhere between post-''Seinfeld" hopelessness and the ''My Name Is Earl" jubilee, the reality is that TV comedy is, was, and probably always will be a mixed bag. The Bigger Talk about the Big Talk is that the TV gods giveth (''Scrubs") and they taketh away (''According to Jim"), simultaneously, randomly, and ruthlessly.

Tonight at 9 on Channel 5, fortunately, they giveth, with ABC's ''Sons & Daughters." This is a sweetly unassuming comedy that takes the loopy family dysfunction of ''Arrested Development" and keeps it real with sincere moments and a semi-improvised style. It's not a punch-line-driven laugh riot so much as an unfolding of character neuroses reminiscent of Woody Allen's family material. And the show's star, Fred Goss, is also Allenesque, with stammering insecurities and phobias that are as endearing as they are irksome. The little-known Goss, who also created this series, starred on a short-lived Bravo sitcom called ''Significant Others."

''Sons & Daughters," which is co-executive-produced by ''Saturday Night Live" honcho Lorne Michaels, arrives with something few sitcoms ever find: inner life. Its sensibility feels lived-in, so that the large ensemble of characters seems nicely natural. The show's premise may be simple -- the ugly secrets of a multigenerational suburban Ohio clan -- but the execution is rich.

Goss's Cameron is at the center, an Everyboomer in love with his second wife, Liz (Gillian Vigman), and dealing with his emotional time bomb of a teen son. He also gets stuck in the middle of his extended family, including his demanding mother (Dee Wallace-Stone), his conflicted stepfather (Max Gail), and his anti-Semitic aunt (Lois Hall), on whom the children paint a Hitler mustache while she's napping.

The best character on the show is Cameron's sister Sharon, who is played with depressive charm by Alison Quinn. Her husband (like the David Cross character in ''Arrested Development") may be gay, which leads to a few sneaky double entendres about how he secretly likes to play the harmonica. Sharon is sad about her sexless marriage, and immune to Cameron's attempts to help her feel attractive: ''I'm pretty in Cincinnati," she says. ''I'm not pretty in a general sense."

Sharon's 13-year-old daughter looks like a geek, with braces and thick glasses, but she acts like a competitive girlfriend. ''No offense, Mom," she says, ''but I'd rather kill myself than be in a relationship where sex isn't the number one thing." Sharon can't catch a break.

The improvisatory element of ''Sons & Daughters" gives it the kind of looseness that makes ''Curb Your Enthusiasm" seem so grounded in reality. The style goes against the grain of the TV industry, which is a controlling master resistant to letting incidental moments occur on-screen. The networks are so desperate to predict the audience and ratings of a show before even filming it that they often choke off creativity. ''Sons & Daughters" is a sitcom whose method -- a script embellished by actors at play -- celebrates the unexpected comedy that can emerge among talented people.

The series definitely takes place from a baby boomer perspective, as Cameron makes a number of 1960s references. Indeed, the opening scenes of each episode are backed by guitar work from the Grateful Dead song ''Althea." And as is typical in boomer-centric pieces, Cameron and his contemporaries are trapped in a vise between their precocious kids and their childish parents.

But ''Sons & Daughters" escapes this pigeonhole; universal domestic truths keep rearing their heads. In an extended family of loons, the truth will out sooner or later, despite any pretense of secrecy. Even a fondness for the harmonica, for example, can't stay in the closet very long.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at

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