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03/24/2014 11:41 EDT | Updated 05/24/2014 05:59 EDT

'Surviving Jack' Review: Is There Room For The Chris Meloni Sitcom?

With a show like "The Goldbergs" already out there, is there room for "Surviving Jack"? In a word: yes.

Both comedies are coming-of-age tales, but while the ABC sitcom is set in the '80s, "Surviving Jack" is set in the '90s. OK, OK, that's the vaguest of vague descriptions, so let me break it down.

surviving jack

"The Goldbergs," you already know. Based on creator Adam F. Goldberg's childhood, it centres on an overbearing, annoying mom, a lazy, loud dad, and their three knucklehead kids in what is virtually "The Wonder Years" meets "Roseanne." It's laugh-out-loud funny and wonderfully nostalgic; there have been many a time when I've sniffled into a tissue at the end of any given episode.

"Surviving Jack," which is based on Justin Halpern's autobiographical book "I Suck at Girls" (he also wrote "$#*! My Dad Says"), is about a cranky, ornery man who has to take over parenting duties while his former stay-at-home wife goes to law school. The kids are teenagers so instead of fluffy issues, they have the kind of problems that, if not dealt with properly, could possibly scar them for life.

I grew up in the '80s and went to high school in the late '80s to early '90s, so I definitely identify with both series. I grew up in a loud household which only got louder when my half-siblings came to live with us. My dad was busy working and didn't get too close, while my nosy-parker mom balanced her job with taking care of us. Some might argue that "The Goldbergs" likes to force the '80s imagery down our throats, but because I have such a deep appreciation for that time, I love it all. And "Surviving Jack" is no different: the '90s come rushing at you as soon as the series starts. And while the music from "The Goldbergs" reminds me of all the records and tapes I had, "Surviving Jack" brought me back to a time of school dances and talent shows, all-ages nightclubs and blasting music in my Dodge Colt (that's right, baby) after I got my driver's licence.

Christopher Meloni ("Law & Order: Special Victims Unit") gets to show us that he can play more than an imprisoned serial killer and a sex crimes detective. He's kind of awesome as Jack Dunlevy, an oncologist who happens to be ex-military, so not always the most "present" dad. He doesn't take any bulls**t and doesn't like to sugarcoat anything, which makes me wonder what kind of doctor he is -- but two episodes in, we have yet to see Work Jack. He was the guy who'd leave the house at the crack of dawn, get home after the kids were in bed, and when he actually was home, Mom still did everything, especially when it was kid-related.

So now that Joanne (Rachael Harris, "Suits") has decided that it's her time, and with her constant studying and coming home late, that leaves Jack as the full-time parent. Harris is wonderful here, the perfect balance for Meloni. The actress normally plays the crazy, sarcastic shrew but there's no way a series could handle two offbeat parents, so it's kind of refreshing that she gets to play the normal character for once.

It's a wonderful turn of events as Jack is more than willing to be Joanne's rock, something she has been for years. It's the mark of any solid marriage, one partner sacrificing for the other, but it's a refreshing change to see the roles reversed. Jack, however, isn't your average sitcom dad. He's competent, sure; it just seems like he doesn't give a rat's ass. But, of course, he does have a warm heart under that cold exterior, as he tells Joanne, "I love those damn kids. I might not always like them, but name one parent who would hang out with their kids." Man's got a point.

So far, my only qualm with "Surviving Jack" is that Dad deals with the son and Mom deals with the daughter. Frankie (Connor Buckley, "Deception") is a freshman who grew nearly a foot over the summer, making him prime meat for all the high school girls who only see the man he has become, not the man-boy he still is. But just because he has the looks doesn't mean he has the confidence, and the poor kid has next to none. Enter Jack -- but don't think he'll be giving Frankie all kinds of pep talks or emotional man-to-man discussions. That's not Jack's style, but in his own intimidating way, he manages to get the point across.

Jack takes more of a hands-off approach with Rachel (Claudia Lee, "Hart of Dixie") but that can't go on for much longer. Every dad dreads tackling teenage girl issues but for Jack, it'll be a whole different ball game -- one that I'm excited to see.

The narrator (Kevin Rahm, "Mad Men") should also get special mention. He brings an added dimension to a show like this, letting us know that despite everything Frankie has endured, he has (hopefully) come out of it OK. As for "Surviving Jack," it's more than OK. This one's a keeper -- a laugh-out-loud winner from start to finish.

"Surviving Jack" premieres Thursday, March 27 at 8 p.m. ET on CTV and 9:30 p.m. ET on Fox.

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