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Review: NBC's 'Growing up Fisher'

J.K. Simmons as Mel and Eli Baker as

J.K. Simmons as Mel and Eli Baker as Henry in "Growing Up Fisher." (Credit: NBC / Colleen Hayes)

NBC's newcomer "Growing Up Fisher" arrives Sunday in one of the world's most coveted spots -- in the wake of the Winter Olympics' closing ceremony. This means

a. NBC thinks it's got a winner; and

b. maybe it does. 

But I have my doubts, and  they are laid out below.

Meanwhile, there is an interesting Long Island connection here: The real life Mel -- J.K. Simmons' character -- got his guide dog at Smithtown's Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind. I've posted a clip below the review from creator DJ Nash, who talks about the role the dog played in their lives. 

"Growing Up Fisher,' WNBC/4, Sunday, 10:30, then regular time period, Tuesday, 9:30

What it's about: Mel Fisher (J.K. Simmons) is blind -- has been since childhood. His son, Henry (Eli Baker), 11, has been his guide at home, while his brother Ken (Bill Fagerbakke -- you know his voice well, as Patrick Star) has helped him at the law firm they both run. The result -- almost everyone thinks Mel is NOT blind. Then one day, he and his wife Joyce (Jenna Elfman) decide to divorce -- reasons unclear -- but she wants to explore her life. Mel needs a lot of help now, and gets a guide dog, Elvis. (This is based on creator DJ Nash's childhood in Massachusetts, and there is a Long Island connection too: Nash's father, also named Mel, got his guide dog from Smithtown-based Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind.)

My say: "Growing up Fisher" is a roman à sitcom -- one of those lifted-from-real-life shows that rely on the vivid memory of the creator who strip-mines his or her childhood for raw material and then makes up the rest. And there was evidently quite a gold mine to begin with here.

Nash's father is clearly a remarkable individual: He got through law school, raised a family and compensated for his blindness by essentially pretending that he wasn't blind (presumably because of the various prejudices a blind person confronted in the '70s, and presumably still does). There's absolutely a compelling story here -- but it's not entirely clear from the first two episodes whether it's exactly a funny one.

NBC been scrambling (so far unsuccessfully) to locate some idealized broad family comedy that has a deep emotional core (or "Big heart, big funny," as Nash has called it.) With "Fisher,” as with the now-canceled "Michael J. Fox Show," the hope is that a disability -- if sensitively handled – will provide the key.

Nonetheless, something's still missing here, even if that's not the "heart."  Instead of feeling original, "Fisher" feels derivative -- a "Wonder Years" for a whole new generation of viewers who don't even know what a "Wonder Years" is. Instead of feeling authentic, it feels pasteurized -- a show based on a compelling human story that's been put through the TV sitcom mill. Simmons plays Mel for laughs, when all you want to know is what he really thinks or feels about any given challenge (and there are so many). Maybe "Fisher" could have worked better as a drama instead.

Bottom line: Good-hearted and gentle, "Fisher" struggles on the "funny" front.

Grade: C+

Tags: J.K. Simmons , DJ Nash , "Growing Up Fisher , " Guide Dog Foundation of the blind

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