FOX's "Sons of Tucson" premieres on Sunday (March 14) night. That isn't terrific timing, because it means that I'm transitioning into my review of the new comedy immediately after completing my review of HBO's "The Pacific," which also premieres on Sunday night.
 
That doesn't mean that I'm comparing the two projects. After all, as an epic HBO war miniseries, "The Pacific" has to live up to the standards of "Band of Brothers" and "Generation Kill," which as a FOX live-action comedy, "Sons of Tucson" only has to live up to the standards of "Brothers" and "'Til Death."
 
But as a critic, it comes down to this: "The Pacific" is awesome and ambitious, a TV project I look forward to the entire world seeing. "Sons of Tucson" is flat and flabby and while I'm unoffended by it, I certainly don't much care whether or not people watch.
 
In fact, "Sons of Tucson" is probably somewhere in the upper half of FOX's recent live-action comedy development slate. It's better than any other live-action comedy FOX has aired this season and it's also better than things like "Do Not Disturb" and "Happy Hour."
 
But in a season that has seen the revitalization of the family comedy with "Modern Family" and "The Middle," "Sons of Tucson" hardly merits mention.
 
[Review after the break...]
 
The plot of "Sons of Tucson" is a strange one.
 
When their banker father is thrown in prison for his involvement in "a stock thing," the three Gunderson boys (Matthew Levy, Frank Dolce and Benjamin Stockham) flee from the Family Services authorities in their hometown and make their way across the country to Tucson by grifting and doing all manner of sketchy things. Once in Tucson, they realize they need somebody to pretend to be their father for various administrative reasons. Circumstances lead them to hire Ron Snuffkin (Tyler Labine), a homeless alcoholic in debt to local gangsters and a gift for telling outlandish lies.
 
While it normally wouldn't seem like a great idea to install an ethically challenged, single loner in your back shed for the purposes of prevarication, the Gundersons have problems of their own. Oldest child Brandon is having gender identification issues. Youngest brother Robby is a budding psychopath in dire need of a male role model before he begins dismembering cats and putting them in the freezer. And middle child Gary, the supposedly sensible one, is a 45-year-old trapped in a middle schooler's body, with more neuroses than any small person should bear.
 
There's a very sad show hidden underneath the madcap antics in "Sons of Tucson," a sad show that I keep thinking about whenever the writers attempt to justify the various plot mechanics in clumsy and expositional bursts. See, somebody's really uncomfortable with the premise for "Sons of Tucson" and I can't tell if that somebody is creator Greg Bratman or a development executive at FOX, but it's a bad mix. A comedy like this has to just own its premise and move on. Instead, every other line sounds like it came from a note reading, "Why would that need to happen?" "Why wouldn't the kids have done this?" and the result is suffocated and drained of all spontaneity.
 
The latter quality dooms the show, because Tyler Labine is the sort of actor who has to be given room to just play. Here, he's stuck in a role that might as well have been written for any Jack Black type -- think "Dicey's Song" meets "School of Rock" -- a disappointment, since "Reaper" was temporarily enough to convince me that there was more to Labine than just a cheaper, small-screen Black replacement. Here, he's working so hard to keep his character from being disgusting or creepy that he isn't nearly wild enough or loose enough to be funny.
 
The kids have also been over-pathologized since two of them were recast between the original pilot and the episode premiering Sunday. I'm not necessarily saying this decision was a bad thing. The original kids weren't funny and they certainly had no specificity. Although Robby is right on the verge of being dangerously disturbed, Stockham is an exemplary Cute Sitcom Kid and you get the sense that as with Atticus Shaffer on "The Middle," the  kind of behaviors we're finding adorable in a TV comedy would have parents freaking out and seeking counseling in the real world. Oldest son Brandon has been given a bizarre assortment of character details and the writers haven't exactly committed to whether he's gay or a transexual, but I'm sure that'll all come up if the show lasts long enough. We have to like kids this quirky to laugh at them and so far, like the show itself, they're more puzzling than amusing.
 
"Sons of Tucson" would like to be "Malcolm in the Middle," with its unique combination of humane family dynamics and cartoonish absurdity. It's a comparison it couldn't shy from if it wanted to. Not only is Dolce's Gary mighty Malcolm-ish in his morbid hyper-maturity, but the series is produced by Justin Berfield, who left his Reese days behind him to become an increasingly prolific producer. The icing on the cake is the presence of director Todd Holland, who won two Emmys for "Malcolm" and treats "Tucson" with familiar style, right down to the framing of the individual kids. Holland can only be as inspired as the script gives him room to be and in the pilot, that consists of Labine knocking things over and the latest gag in TV's seemingly never-ending fascination with the inferno-like consequences of pouring too much lighter fluid on the grill.
 
Through three episodes, I don't much know what the show is going to be for "Sons of Tucson," especially since every week seems to bring up something new to puncture the premise, rather than just living within the premise. I don't know if we're really supposed to think there's a future for Ron and Robby's teacher Maggie (Natalie Martinez). There's no reason why she should find hims charming, but the script implies she does, even in instances where the things he does aren't anything other than distressing. More stuff with Maggie at the school could also bring Kurt Fuller, as the principal, into the mix more frequently and there are few things that can't benefit from more Kurt Fuller. I'd also welcome more of "The State' alum Joe LoTruglio, since he gets in some good moments in the third episode, but I'm assuming he's nothing more than a rare guest. 
 
So is Ron really just going to spend the next 11 years serving as father-for-hire until he's packed all three kids up for college? Is that the series? Can we expect more unearned warm-fuzzies in weeks to come? My own advice? Get the laughs first, earn the warm-fuzzies later, because through three episodes, neither part of the equation is really working.
 
"Sons of Tucson" premieres on Sunday, March 14 at 9:30 p.m.