"Kath & Kim" is an instructive mistake. The new NBC sitcom is built of such sturdy components, it really ought to be good TV, and a fitting Thursday night companion to "The Office." Star Molly Shannon is the rare comedian who, like Steve Carell, can balance cringe comedy with lovability. And like "The Office," "Kath & Kim" is based on a proven blueprint from overseas, a fierce Australian sitcom about a mother and daughter locked together in a circle of hell, a "Gilmore Girls" gone very wrong.
But this remake, which premieres tonight at 8:30 on Channel 7, just doesn't cut it. There's something essential missing at the core, within all the broad suburban satire and pop-cultural joshing, which strains to reference Britney Spears, Melanie Griffith, and Lindsay Lohan by the end of the first half hour. "Kath & Kim" is proof - yet again, my friends - that creating a successful sitcom is a stubbornly mysterious process, that even a collection of the very best ingredients can make for a tasteless stew.
The comedies that work these days have invented unique comic languages and signatures - Alec Baldwin's cool jerkiness on "30 Rock," John Krasinski's ironic eyebrow on "The Office," Neil Patrick Harris's self-glorifying rants on "How I Met Your Mother." The American "Kath & Kim" delivers absolutely nothing as distinctive; the show merely asks, "Just how stupid are Kath and Kim?" and then proceeds to answer that question over and over again, like putting "Dumb and Dumber" on a loop. Kath is so stupid she lets her daughter walk all over her. Kim is so stupid she spells "over" "OVUR" and loves to eat at Applebee's. They are so stupid they spend all their time at the mall. And so on, ad infinitum.
Kath (Shannon) is a suburban divorcee who's beginning to enjoy her freedom when her rotten daughter, Kim (Selma Blair), decides to leave her husband and move back in with mom. Whiny, spoiled Kim undermines Kath's romantic relationship with Phil (John Michael Higgins); fickle Kath allows it to happen. The show is styled with a handheld camera and given no laugh track, to evoke the tonal realism of the Australian original. But the overall effect is just numbing and empty, as we can hear the high-strung mother-daughter jokes falling with a thud in the background.
Shannon and Blair have none of the clueless peas-in-a-pod chemistry of the actresses in the Australian original. Shannon is wound too tightly, and Blair is terribly miscast. She's supposed to be lazy and dumb; she only comes across as despicable. If Kim were played by a more comically agile actress than Blair, I could probably find some scant promise in "Kath & Kim"; most comedies need time to gel, after all. But Blair is a full-on bummer, and the writers don't help by giving her character no respect or affection. Indeed, the show condescends to both Kath and Kim to an uncomfortable degree, to the point where you might want to give the tackily dressed pair a break and simply turn the channel.