“Sons of Tucson”: A Cult Hit in the Making?

“Sons of Tucson” is a clever and subversive new sitcom about three sons who’ve fled to Tucson, Ariz., because their father was imprisoned for financial fraud. They then go on to recruit a ne’er-do-well, played by Taylor Labine (of “Reaper” fame), to pose as their father for school and other official purposes. The show is generating some drama of its own.

Fox, which bought the comedy to help revive its sitcom fortunes – dormant since “Malcom in the Middle” ended – originally planned to air the show on Sunday nights at 8:30. Audience testing reportedly indicated that the show would fare better at a more family-friendly time so, of course, Fox decided to air it even later on Sunday. Predictably, the show did poorly at 9:30 p.m., and, after four episodes, Fox put the show on hiatus.

“Sons of Tucson” returned last week, this time on Sundays at 7:30 p.m., a (somewhat) better time slot. Given this reprieve, and with support and goodwill, the show still has some chance at a second season. Justin Berfield (formerly an actor on “Malcolm”) has tweeted that he will donate half his producing fee to charity if the show is renewed. I won’t ask for or make a cash contribution, but I’ll do my part with a plea to watch the show – it’s twisted and weird in surprising and enjoyable ways.

My own track record of picking sitcom winners has been rather uneven in recent seasons. I was a big fan of “Better Off Ted,” a wonderfully edgy corporate satire that never gained much traction; currently, I sing the praises of “The Middle,” which I find to be a contemporary “Roseanne,” one of the best-written, most affecting, most real comedies, but which is known mostly as the lead-in to the gimmicky and much buzzed about “Modern Family.”

So, what is it I like so much about “Sons of Tucson”? Why do I think that, like “Freaks and Geeks,” to which it owes a debt of inspiration, it will develop a cult following for successive waves of viewers? In full disclosure, it could be a matter of bias, as Harvey Myman, my brother-in-law, is one of the producers. But I’d prefer to believe it’s my fascination with the fact that almost every character on the show is, in one way or another, a liar, hiding secrets and a fair amount of rage very near the surface, and that in spite of this, or because of this, they find themselves becoming a family – even as they are lying about being one. That appeals to me.

“There is a lot of humor that lies in people not telling the truth,” show co-creator Greg Bratman told me recently.

Or maybe I was just impressed by Bratman, a first-time TV writer who sold the pilot on spec with his partner, Tommy Dewey (also known as an actor, most recently in the Zac Efron vehicle “17 Again”) – something that almost never happens.

Bratman grew up in Palo Alto (where his father is a Stanford University philosophy professor), majored in philosophy at Princeton and performed in Quipfire, the college improv troupe. After college, he plunged into acting in the New York theater scene, working with the New York Theatre Workshop and playwright Moises Kaufman, and landing a small part in the 2001 Shakespeare in the Park “Measure for Measure,” alongside Billy Crudup and Sanaa Lathan. He pursued his love of improv at the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York, and, with his Palo Alto homeboy Dusty
Brown, Bratman wrote and performed in “The Barrel Brothers,” the adventures of a “Flight of the Conchords/ Smothers Brothers”-esque folk duo from Kansas.

While in New York, Bratman also connected with Tommy Dewey, another alum of Princeton and Quipfire. They started to write together, creating two-man shows, including “Natalie,” a play for eight characters (in which Dewey and Bratman played four each). They presented “Natalie” at the 2003 New York Fringe Festival and then brought it to Los Angeles.

Subsequently, Dewey got cast in a number of WB programs, such as “What I Like About You” and the short-lived “The Mountain,” and Bratman and Dewey decided to try their hands at writing for TV. Somewhere in that process, they met Myman, who mentored them through a few first attempts.

In 2007, Bratman and Dewey pitched the basic idea of “Sons of Tucson” to Myman (who by then was working at J2 Pictures, the production company of Berfield and Jason Felts) – and Myman encouraged them to write it.

The concept was informed by Bratman and Dewey’s experiences sitting in a New York coffee shop and listening to 12-year-olds on cell phones bossing around their parents. Dewey was single, and Bratman didn’t have kids yet (he now has a 1-year-old), and they were amazed at how these kids had no boundaries. “It was hilarious,” Bratman recalled.

The result is a story about kids operating without parents in a world that requires at least one, and then discovering how much they need family. Fox bought the pilot, and 20th Century Fox
Television got involved. J2 Pictures recruited director Todd Holland of “Malcolm” fame as part of the creative team and to direct the pilot. As a neophyte, Bratman was grateful to be involved at every step, including casting and editing the pilot; Matthew Carlson, a veteran TV writer, came aboard as executive producer.

Thus far, “Sons of Tucson” has managed to be funny, at times sweet and often weird.  True to the writers’ original invention, everyone seems to be lying about something – for pragmatic rather than altruistic reasons. Yet – and this is what makes the show worth watching – you never know which way their weirdness is going to turn, despite the best of intentions.

As if writing a TV show were no small accomplishment, Bratman is also a doctoral candidate at Stanford in environmental studies. Surprising, right? A few years ago, while Dewey was pursuing acting, Bratman found himself under a four-month enforced vow of silence to repair vocal nodes damaged while performing as the Barrel Brothers. Having that much time to think had an impact. “I refocused,” he said.

“If all you are doing is trying to promote yourself as an actor and writer,” Bratman said, “you’re at risk of going into full ego mode.” He decided he needed “something bigger than myself.”

What he did was get a master’s degree in environmental science at UC Santa Barbara, studying eco services systems – which, in case you were wondering, are the services nature provides for humans, such as water purification, pollination or dam control – that are rarely valued. He was subsequently accepted at Stanford, and he is supposed to begin there next September.

“Sons of Tucson” will air its remaining episodes over the next two months – I have seen some of the upcoming episodes, including a funny and touching “Father’s Day.” The show’s immediate fate is uncertain, but see if you don’t think its future as a cult classic is assured. As for Bratman, when I asked him whether next fall would find him in Hollywood or in class at Stanford, he answered:

“I’ll have to see where life takes me.”

I’ll be watching with interest.


Photo credit. From left: Frank Dolce, Tyler Labine, Benjamin Stockham and Matthew Levy star in the Fox sitcom “Sons of Tucson,” Sundays at 7:30 p.m. Photo by Greg Gayne/FOX

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