May 1, 2013



FAMILY TOOLS –  Wednesday 8:30PM on ABC – Change the Channel


J.K. Simmons is one of our national character actor treasures, but he tests the bounds of our willingness to follow him anywhere with FAMILY TOOLS, which is getting a last-minute run starting tonight.

Tools is sitcom with a capital “sit.”  The rollicking premise is that Tony Shea (Simmons), who’s built his contracting business from the ground up, has a heart condition and can no longer do the work himself.  With no alternative, and at the instigation of his live-in sister Terry (Leah Remini), Tony calls for the return of his bumbling son Jack (Kyle Bornheimer).  Jack’s failed epically at everything he’s ever tried to do, from the police academy to the army to divinity school, but his heart’s in the right place, and he longs for acceptance from his dad.  Just to increase the contrivances, Jack’s co-worker on the job is Darren (Edi Gathegi), the son of Tony’s barely alive oldest friend, because although Darren does everything but work on the job, and he and Jack get along like Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd, Tony promised his pal that he’d always take care of Darren.  Just to round things out, Darren has a cute sister Liz (Danielle Nicolet) who flirts with Jack, and Terry’s son Mason (Johnny Pemberton) is also in residence, blowing up firecrackers in the house and insisting that Jack form a band with him.

Although the series is based on the British comedy White Van Man (that show’s creator Adrian Poynton gets a co-creator credit here) showrunner Bobby Bowman is from the school of Greg Garcia (as is pilot director Michael Fresco), and the DNA of My Name Is Earl and Raising Hope is much in evidence here, in the pilot’s scrambling pace and its mix of goofy gags with family-is-everything sentiment.  But what Garcia does is awfully difficult to pull off, and the pilot for Tools doesn’t hit the right note.  Garcia’s shows don’t feel like ordinary sitcoms because his plots go beyond the rational to a level of amiable surrealism that heightens both the emotions and the jokes.  Remove that special craziness, and you just have blockheads acting silly, which is as good a description of Family Tools as any.

Simmons manages to pry the laughs out of his unpromising material as the crusty-but-benign dad, because, well, he’s J.K. Simmons and that’s what he does.  The rest of the cast fares considerably less well, with everyone trying one notch too hard, and thus seeming forced and a little shrill.  Bornheimer, who should be at the heart of the series, feels like a second banana; it’s OK that his character is a fool, but he needs to at least be an interesting one.  His on-screen relationship with Gathegi is also less fun to watch than it needs to be, conveying far more hostility than affection.  Remini (who’s so clearly from a different gene pool than Simmons that I kept assuming she was his in-law rather than his sister) badgers everyone and, in the pilot, has oddly little interplay with Mason, who’s after all meant to be her son.

Family Tools could improve.  It took several episodes for the American version of The Office to find its own voice separate from the British original, and Tools may face a similar challenge as it navigates from the UK to American air.  The cast certainly has talented performers, chief among them Simmons.  The question is how much patience anyone will have for a series that offers so little at the start.  If the show is going to repair its own identity, it will need to work fast.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."