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'Growing Up Fisher' review: Good-hearted, but not very funny

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

THE SHOW "Growing Up Fisher"

WHEN | WHERE Preview airs Sunday at 10:30 p.m., then moves into its regular time slot, Tuesdays at 9:30 p.m., on NBC/4

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Mel Fisher (J.K. Simmons) is blind -- has been since childhood. His son, 11-year-old Henry (Eli Baker), has been his guide at home, while his brother Ken (Bill Fagerbakke) 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.

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 one of those lifted-from-real-life shows that relies 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 he wasn't sightless.

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 has been scrambling (so far unsuccessfully) to locate some idealized broad family comedy that has a deep emotional core. With "Fisher" (as with the canceled "Michael J. Fox Show"), the hope is that a disability -- if sensitively handled -- will provide the key.

Nevertheless, something's still missing. Instead of feeling original, "Fisher" feels derivative -- a "Wonder Years" for a new generation that doesn't remember the original (Jason Bateman narrates as the adult Henry). It feels pasteurized -- a show based on a real human story that's been put through the sitcom mill.

Simmons plays Mel for laughs, when all you want to know is what he really thinks or feels about any given challenge. Maybe "Fisher" could have worked better as a drama.

BOTTOM LINE Good-hearted and gentle, "Fisher" struggles on the "funny" front.



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