First episode impressions: ‘Almost Family’ (TV review)

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 dramedy starring Brittany Snow and produced by Jason Katims should be at the top of my list of must-see fall shows, but the preview for “Almost Family” (Wednesdays, Fox) looked somewhere between weird and bad. The pilot episode of this series based on the Australian show “Sisters” (and probably with less input from Katims than his past shows, like “Friday Night Lights” and “Parenthood”) turns out to be surprisingly not terrible. But it lacks a great hook or winning formula, which explains why the makers of the trailer had a hard time cutting together something that’s easy to define.

It has an appealing cast, with strikingly red-haired Snow as Julia Bechly, who works at her father Leon’s (Timothy Hutton) fertility clinic; Emily Osment as Roxi, a former gymnastics star who also has singing talent; Megalyn Echikunwoke as defense lawyer Edie, who realizes she is gay; and Mo McRae as Tim, Edie’s husband who is likewise a lawyer and also Julia’s old college boyfriend.

“Almost Family” is almost funny at times, but it doesn’t nudge a viewer in the ribs like a sitcom does. It trusts us to laugh or not. Ultimately, it’s not quite funny, not quite unappealing, not quite enough to get me to care.

Granted, these New Yorkers do have first-world problems, although the Bechlys will likely take a financial hit from the upcoming court costs. But “Almost Family” hits a stride of sorts by the end of the pilot episode, when Roxi and Edie both end up at Julia’s messy abode – three women at crossroads in their lives. Thirty-percent-life crises, I guess.

“Almost Family” is almost funny at times, but it doesn’t nudge a viewer in the ribs like a sitcom does. It trusts us to laugh or not. Among the almost funny premises: Julia, who regularly has sex on first dates to fill her emotional void, unknowingly hooks up with her half-brother. Roxi wrestles to the ground a fan who grabs her butt during a photo opportunity. And Edie tries to resist Amanda’s (Victoria Cartagena) flirtations but can’t quite. These sequences are not quite funny, not quite unappealing, not quite enough to get me to care.

The reason the three women bond so quickly – despite the tension between Julia and Edie over their common love interest, and the fact that Roxi met the other two only recently – is that they’ve learned they are half-sisters. In a case of fraud that’s somewhere between shrug-worthy and engagingly bizarre, Leon has used his own sperm to help dozens or more of his otherwise infertile clients have babies. As I understand it, the clients were told it’s either the husband’s sperm or anonymous sperm from a donor.

The episode, written by showrunner Annie Weisman, concludes with a twist in the legal proceedings: District attorney Amanda – yep, the Amanda who helps Edie realize she’s gay – is charging Leon with not merely fraud, but also sexual assault. There’s no real-world legal way this is sexual assault, but yet it’s awkward to say that in the #MeToo era. Yet it’s so weird that the #MeToo movement will probably not latch onto this series.

Still, it’s better that a show be crazy than filled with clichés. I don’t know what “Almost Family” will be next week, or five episodes from now, or a season from now (although I’d be stunned if we’re looking at Season 2 in a year). My broad guess is that all these men and women who grew up without fathers will gravitate toward Julia and her increasing circle of siblings.

And the legal case will play behind it, with Leon’s offspring splitting into factions – some saying he’s evil, others saying he’s really not so bad if you think about all the bigger problems in the world, and after all, they wouldn’t be here at all if it wasn’t for him.

I can’t say many shows are as unpredictable out of the gates as “Almost Family.” But I wish I was saying it about a great show rather than a merely strange one.