There’s something satisfying about watching a great actor settle into a role that seems to have been written just for him.
Even though “Surviving Jack” could use a few tweaks, Christopher Meloni wears the part of Jack Dunlevy on the new Fox sitcom like a suit perfectly tailored to his imposing frame.
Premiering Thursday at 9:30 p.m., “Surviving Jack” finds Meloni — nimbly switching to comedy after years of solving grim cases on “Law & Order: SVU” — as an unsentimental oncologist who has chosen to dial back his workload in order to be available for his two teenage children while his wife, Joanne (Rachael Harris), pursues her law school dream.
That Meloni plays a sometimes-gruff straightshooter makes sense given that the series comes from executive producers Bill Lawrence (“Scrubs,” “Cougar Town”) and Justin Halpern and Patrick Schumacker (“$#*! My Dad Says”) and is based on Halpern’s book “I Suck at Girls.” Jack is a spiritual cousin to Dr. Cox from “Scrubs,” but where John C. McGinley’s Cox sometimes came off as needlessly cruel, Jack just seems uninterested in niceties. He’s based on the same man that William Shatner played in “Dad,” with much more pleasurable results.
With its voice-over narration by the adult version of teen son Frankie (Connor Buckley) and its period setting in the early 1990s, “Surviving Jack” is firmly in the mold of coming-of-age predecessors like “The Wonder Years.”
Fortunately, this is not a nostalgia-fest. (More germane to the period is the absence of ubiquitous technology: no cellphones, no Internet, and — essential to the pilot — no Internet porn.)
While the era is mined for a few background jokes, shout-outs to Marky Mark and scene-setting music from the likes of the Talking Heads and George Michael take a backseat to the timeless rituals, joys, and humiliations of high school and the shifts in family dynamics.
That the Dunlevys are a functional family is a plus. Jack is ex-military and can be a tough, at times arrogant know-it-all, but he loves his wife and kids. He is a man who can grouse at his son, “I think everything everyone says is stupid. Try me anyway,” but also tell his wife, “You’ve had my back for years, it’s your turn.”
Meloni has two solid partners in Harris and Buckley, playing the woman who has his heart and the son who loves him but is a little frightened of him too. These three members of the family feel like real people, not just a collection of traits. Meloni and Harris exhibit terrific chemistry as a couple still truly in love, and their disagreements never devolve into nasty, sitcom-style quip-offs. Daughter Rachel (Claudia Lee) is a smart girl dealing with boy problems but for now she seems much more like a secondary character who will need more fleshing out to become a full-fledged participant.
While the first two episodes of “Surviving Jack” available for review didn’t offer an avalanche of laugh-out-loud moments, there is a free-spirited realness to it that makes the show worth sticking with to see Meloni whip it into shape.