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Grounded For Life Deserves a Spot in the Working-Class-Sitcom Canon

Photo: Fox

In Grounded for Life’s original pilot, Staten Island dad Sean Finnerty (Donal Logue) gets a call from a security guard at a New Jersey theme park asking him to come pick up his teenage daughter Lily (Lynsey Bartilson), who was busted with a group of friends drinking Scotch out of shampoo bottles. When Sean arrives, he discovers that the head of security is the same self-serious, hair-plug-sporting guard who, five years earlier, banned Sean and his brother Eddie (Kevin Corrigan) from the park for life after catching them drunk-driving go-karts. Hair Plugs doesn’t believe that Sean is Lily’s dad, accusing him of being her big brother, or else her dealer. Sean responds with the first of what will become his signature rants. “No, because only a dad would get that screwed. Only a dad works all week at his mind-numbing job only to spend his precious Saturday night at a fifth-rate theme park getting the third degree from a cop with a duck on his badge!” Lily’s friends cheer Sean on, and he basks in their praise — until he hears one of them (a pre–The OC Adam Brody) tell Lily, “You were so right, your dad’s the one to call!” — and realizes he has been played.

Later, he tells his wife, Claudia (Megyn Price), “I don’t want to be the kind of guy who scolds his kid for getting drunk at Action Mountain. I want to be the guy getting drunk at Action Mountain.” She replies, “Believe me, I wanna be the girl who holds his hair back when he pukes. But we got a whole bunch of kids here, so we gotta stick it out until they grow up or run away.” That exchange is the ethos of the show — it’s a little irreverent without being crass, sweet but not overly sentimental. Sean and Claudia, who have been parents since they were 18, love their family, obviously, but they’re realistic about the parts that really suck.

Grounded for Life never quite found an audience. It was brought in as a mid-season replacement in 2001 for the short-lived John Goodman sitcom Normal, Ohio on Fox, aired out of order, and was cancelled two episodes into its third season to make room for a new reality show called American Idol. It was then picked up by the WB for an additional two seasons, where its Nielsen rating never rose above 2.8. (All five seasons are now available on the free streaming service IMDbTV.) That’s a shame, because Grounded for Life is a solidly funny sitcom with a rock-and-roll spirit that deserves a spot alongside Sanford and Son, Roseanne, and The Simpsons as a working-class-family show that actually grapples with the reality of being a working-class family.

The Finnertys don’t fail to make ends meet — but just barely. Money is a constant concern, and an unexpected expense could knock them off balance. To pay for a vacation, they take on extra shifts (Sean is an electrician with the MTA, Claudia works as a restaurant hostess), which has real consequences for their family. The closest the show comes to gliding over money issues is when Sean and Eddie buy a bar, in a third-season effort to give the show a refresh in the midst of falling ratings. It’s still a pretty traditional family sitcom, so each episode has to come to a (mostly) heartwarming conclusion, but Sean’s impulsive decision is nevertheless treated as just that — an impulsive decision that could easily bankrupt them. Claudia is furious, their savings are tapped, and the bar becomes a new source of financial anxiety for the rest of the show’s run. Grounded for Life doesn’t look down on Sean and Claudia for their struggles with money, their history of teen pregnancy, or the compromises they make as parents. Creators Mike Schiff and Bill Martin instead treat them with affection and understanding, mining their lives for humor without making fun of them — a hard tightrope to walk.

And the humor works! Jokes and plotlines are consistently tight. The writers play with episode structure, using nonlinear narratives to reveal new layers of a story or just to underscore a joke. One memorable episode starts in the middle of a power outage — minutes before kickoff on Super Bowl Sunday. Sean is scrambling around the kitchen looking for flashlights while his dad (Richard Riehle) asks him why the power is out. Sean dodges all of his questions until the last one: ”Why are you limping?” “Because I caused the blackout,” Sean responds.

At this point, it must be noted that Donal Logue’s performance is the fulcrum of the show. Grounded for Life has a great central cast and some killer guest stars (Stephen Root! Vincent Pastore!), but Logue is key to maintaining the show’s light tone. He pulls off Sean as an impulsive hothead without veering into yikes territory — a remarkable feat. He’s often the cause of conflict, but he always feels bad about it, and when he launches into one of his rants, you can’t help but think he kind of has a point. His charm is also key to Grounded for Life’s winking at the beautiful-wife-dumpy-husband trope. The show acknowledges early on that Megyn Price has a slammin’ bod, noting Claudia’s status as the neighborhood hot mom. But Donal Logue is hardly a schlub. Sure, he’s got a dad bod (which, as we established in 2015, is hot) and “pasty Irish hands,” but it is not at all unbelievable that Claudia is still just as horny for her husband at 32 as she was at 18.

Sean and Claudia are, in fact, very horny for each other. Sex is just as much a part of their lives — and fodder for jokes and storylines — as it is for the childless single people of sitcoms like Friends. It’s cute and often funny, but it could also be part of why Grounded for Life never found its audience. At the time, Fox was establishing itself as an “edgy” network, and promotions for Grounded for Life played up the sex jokes. Not that Grounded for Life doesn’t have edge — it has a kind of punk attitude that colors everything from the song-inspired episode titles (“Let’s Talk About Sex, Henry,” “Jimmy Was Kung-Fu Fighting,” “Don’t Fear the Reefer”) to the theme song and interstitial music by Ween. But if viewers were expecting satire in the vein of The Simpsons or Married … With Children, they didn’t find it in Grounded for Life. Instead, they found a pretty earnest family sitcom that simply acknowledges that sex exists.

I have to hope that if a Grounded for Life revival were picked up by Netflix or HBO Max, it would find the sort of second life enjoyed by other unappreciated-while-they-were-airing shows, such as Arrested Development and Happy Endings. The cast is charming! (Logue and Corrigan play brothers so well I’d believe they were actually related, even though they look nothing alike.) It’s fun to spot guest stars who would go on to greater fame! (In addition to Adam Brody, Miranda Cosgrove and Natasha Lyonne pop up.) Jokes, for the most part, hold up! (Sean outs a coworker in a season-two episode, which is a little rough in 2021 but was nominated for a GLAAD Media Award at the time.) With “the forgotten borough” more in the zeitgeist than ever thanks to its twin scions Pete Davidson and Colin Jost, this Staten Island sitcom should be remembered too.