4 July 2004 | balkaster
Good intentions, but troubled execution
If any comic in the last ten years stood out as the potential source of a possible hit sitcom -- like Bill Cosby, Roseanne, Andy Griffith, and others before him -- it would be Jeff Foxworthy. He's a likable presence and his humor appeals to a wide range of Americans. Yet instead of taking a cue from these past successes and building around him a world inspired by his humor, the producers instead transplanted him to suburban Illinois. It was a fish-out-of-water comedy set in a Northern college town (without actually embracing his distinctly rural Southern humor), and complicated his life with snobby, intellectual in-laws who always misjudged him. It was well done, for what it was, but it wasn't what his fans were expecting and it didn't stand out for the rest of the audience. It got lost, the ratings tanked, ABC cancelled it.
But someone wisely saw Foxworthy's potential, and brought the production to NBC...with changes. New producers who were more in tune with Foxworthy's strengths built a new world for him. Gone were the snobby in-laws and curvy, sexy Anita Barone as his wife, Karen, to be replaced with willowy, neurotic Ann Cusack (younger sister to John and Joan). Foxworthy was uprooted from the North and planted back in the South, in his small fictitious Georgia hometown. No longer would the show be taped in a studio with a laugh track, it would be filmed before a live audience. And no longer was pre-"Sixth Sense" Haley Joel Osment an only child; he now had to contend with sibling rivalry from Jonathan Lipnicki, fresh off the set of "Jerry Maguire". Add the always fun G.W. Bailey as Foxworthy's womanizing get-rich-quick-scheming father and Bill Engvall as his best friend, and you've got the kind of riotous yet heartwarming comedy that harks back to "The Andy Griffith Show".
Unfortunately, retooling any show to this extent seems to doom it. Cusack played off Foxworthy better (with Barone, he always seemed a little henpecked, although that was due to the writing, not the actress), but the addition of Lipnicki felt like stunt casting. The fictional Foxworthy's friends were essentially the same doomed losers as in the first version, but they fit better, had more heart and were a lot funnier. Viewers who had stuck with it on ABC felt lost -- even though the past "incarnation" of the show was referenced early on, there were too many structural changes in the Foxworthy family to accept a continuity between the two versions of the show. Foxworthy's stand-up fans had largely tuned out during the previous version and weren't likely to give it another chance.
If the second version of the show had been the first, this show might still be on the air, and Foxworthy would be retiring it soon after ten successful years. Unfortunately, it wasn't.