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Published: Monday, 2/27/2006

Boomerang sitcom: College grad tries to go home again in new Fox series

BY MIKE KELLY
SPECIAL TO THE BLADE
Unsure where his life is headed, Nate (Josh Dean, with suitcase) returns home after college in the partially improvised comedy <i>Free Ride</i>, which also stars, from left, Erin Cahill as Amber, Dave Sheridan as Dove, and Loretta Fox and Allan Havey as Nate's parents. Unsure where his life is headed, Nate (Josh Dean, with suitcase) returns home after college in the partially improvised comedy <i>Free Ride</i>, which also stars, from left, Erin Cahill as Amber, Dave Sheridan as Dove, and Loretta Fox and Allan Havey as Nate's parents.
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Recent college graduate Nate Stallings (Josh Dean) is driving cross-country to move back in with his parents in a small midwestern town, with no immediate plans beyond doing his laundry. In a cell phone conversation along the way, he explains his intended post-grad lifestyle with his parents to a college buddy.

"It's cool - they take care of me, they do the dishes, they cook me food," Nate says. "It's like having servants."

But when he finally reaches home, he discovers within three minutes that his parents' marriage is shaky and they're in therapy, his old bedroom has been turned into a fitness center, and Mom and Dad will let him stay with them for only a week or two - assuming that he's willing to sleep on an air mattress in their garage.

"I'll just sleep on the couch," Nate suggests.

Mom: "No, no, the couch is not an option."

Dad: "I sleep on the couch."

Mom: "That's right."

Thus begins Free Ride, a midseason sitcom on Fox. Its preview episode airs at 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, after a 90-minute episode of Fox's franchise series, American Idol. The new series will settle into its regular Sunday time slot at 9:30 p.m. March 12.

When Nate's parents (stand-up comic Allan Havey and Loretta Fox of Comedy Central's Strip Mall) aren't sharing enough details of their marital discord to make him queasy, they're offering him solid career advice:

"A crappy job," his father says, "is the foundation of a good life."

The good news for Nate is that he reconnects with a cute former high school classmate (Erin Cahill) who seems to be interested in him. The bad news, though, is that she happens to be engaged to a very jealous guy. Nate also hooks up with another former classmate (Dave Sheridan), a loud and unruly guy who peaked in high school and has been going nowhere ever since. He, too, has words of wisdom for Nate:

"Let me tell you something," he says as they bounce down the street in his monster truck. "I've dated lots of engaged chicks, and it never works out, man."

Free Ride is a pretty formulaic comedy, along the lines of That '70s Show, with the main character a relatively sane island in a sea of kooks. In That '70s Show, the Topher Grace character was the sane one; in Free Ride, it's Nate.

In this show, however, none of the supporting characters do much to distinguish themselves - with one notable exception. Sheridan's blustering character of Mark Dove, or "The Doveman," as he likes to call himself, could be the twin brother to Jack Black's manic character from School of Rock. He's blissfully unaware of what a total loser he is, and when he drags Nate along to a "wild party" that consists of three other losers who like to drink beer and high-five each other all night, Nate sees what could happen to him if he sticks around Nowheresville too long.

Whether Nate's efforts to cope in a town full of meatheads will be enough to support a weekly series remains to be seen, especially when it doesn't have a lead-in like American Idol. But there are a few signs that it just might be possible.

After all, as The Doveman himself says, "There's plenty of fish in the woods here, man. You can't beat a dead horse with milk. You know what I mean?"



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