Family sitcoms have started to make a comeback this season with the success of "Modern Family" and, especially, "The Middle," but there's still room for a cable network to reclaim the TGIF ground, which is what Disney Channel will attempt to do with "Good Luck Charlie" (9:30 p.m. MDT Sunday).
Disney already has live-action sitcoms on the air, but they tend to have some sort of fantastical premise.
"Charlie" is, by design, retro in its ordinariness: The Duncan family has a new member, baby Charlotte (Mia Talerico), or "Charlie" for short.
Dad Bob (Eric Allan Kramer) works as an exterminator; mom Amy (Leigh-Allyn Baker) is a nurse. Teenage Teddy (Bridgit Mendler) creates a personalized video diary for Charlie, often filming siblings P.J. (Jason Dolley) and Gabe (Bradley Steven Perry).
"What really interested us in working on this project was we wanted to do a show about a family, to bring back a family sitcom and make it about a real family, not wizards, nobody's a pop star, nobody has a TV show," said Drew Vaupen, who co-created "Charlie" with Phil Baker. The pair have written together since 1993 on series as varied as "Suddenly Susan," "What I Like About You" and Disney Channel's "Sonny With a Chance."
Disney's edict for all of its shows is that they have an aspirational hook, but with "Charlie," the hook is pretty simple, Vaupen said: "Wouldn't it be great to have a family like this?"
Baker said Disney executives were inspired to move toward a show like "Charlie" based on the success of reruns of past sitcoms with young viewers, including "Full House" and "George Lopez."
"This is a show that has a big, broad appeal," Vaupen said. "It's a safe, TGIF show. (Networks) had moved away from all of this with single-camera comedy. It wasn't done anymore."
Baker said the advent of reality shows and competition series like "Survivor" drove family comedies out of broadcast network prime time. Families watch "American Idol" rather than sitcoms.
"Our hope is Disney Channel gets the idea in the ears of parents that here's a show you can sit down and watch with your kids," Baker said, noting his 9-year-old daughter will watch other tween-targeted shows but there's little in those programs that appeals to parents.
The "Charlie" pilot focuses more on the children — Teddy has a study date while baby-sitting Charlie; P.J. rehearses with his band — and the parents don't have as much to do. Baker said that future episodes — 26 have been ordered — will involve the parents more.
"On any other Disney Channel show, the adults are more on the periphery, but we've been able to bring them forward and make them part of the ensemble as opposed to a walk-through B-story," Baker said. "One of the things we do on this show that you don't see on other Disney Channel shows is that some jokes we write are for the parents. Nothing offensive, we're just trying to appeal in the way Pixar movies do where a kid can go and watch on one level and parents enjoy it on another level."
With "Charlie," Disney Channel executives are also trying to broaden the channel's appeal to get boys to watch —a consideration when settling on the show's title.
"You want a title that says, a) this is a sitcom and, b) this is something that will interest the main demographic, but also we're trying to expand the Disney brand beyond just girls," Vaupen said.
Originally the baby's name was Daisy, and that changed in development. Using "Charlie" is likely to make some viewers think it's a story about a boy. Another title considered and tossed was "Love, Teddy," which is how the Teddy character originally ended her diary entries.
"That one feels immediately feminized and almost excludes boys," Vaupen said. "We also didn't want to have the word 'baby' in the title because that would exclude certain people."
Unlike past shows that have cast twins in roles of the youngest characters (think: the Olsen twins on "Full House"), the "Charlie" producers had no luck in that search and wound up going with a single, tiny actress, Mia Talerico. Her growth in real life will be reflected in the TV show.
"We want to do stories that come from real life, so we talk to Mia's mom about what's going on with Mia, what she's into, what words she's saying, and we incorporate the things she tells us into our stories," Baker said.
JUST FOR KIDS: Good luck finding an adult who willingly sits through "Good Luck Charlie," the new Disney Channel sitcom whose mantra is to unite the family in viewing.
The show may be innocuous fluff for tweens, but their parents have seen the same sort of show done before and better in ABC's 1980s TGIF lineup.
The kids in the family are all wiseacres, the parents are barely there in the premiere episode and Dad is a big dummy.
"You've got homework to do, and I've got a diaper to change," Dad says while cradling baby Charlie. "Her, not me. I'm not that old!"
The canned laughs roar their approval, but adult viewers are less likely to be enthused.