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'Joe' is a pleasant surprise

But 'The Pitts,' 'Tremors' are just unpleasant

"Regular Joe" may just be the most pleasant surprise of the current TV season. In an era when sitcoms are in serious decline, this one is actually funny.

Who would've thought?

Particularly because this Daniel Stern project didn't seem to have a whole lot going for it. After producing a pilot, the show underwent big changes — Stern's character, Joe Binder, became a widower instead of a married man, and Judd Hirsch joined the cast as Joe's meddling father. So when the show was presented to critics in January, there was nothing to show us, and the producers seemed more than a bit vague about what they were planning.

All bad signs.

But "Regular Joe" (Friday, 8:30 p.m., Ch. 4) looks like the exception to the rule. It's a funny family sitcom. "It's a simple premise," said creator/executive producer David Litt.

Joe is a "regular" guy who runs the family hardware store. He's a widowed father of two — 16-year-old Grant (John Francis Daley of "Freaks & Geeks") and 18-year-old Joanie (Kelly Karbacz), who is herself the unwed mother of an infant (twins Alana and Kelalani McAuliffe).

"Maybe it's not that simple, now that I think of it," Litt said.

"It's a different kind of family structure," Stern said. "This is a family that is full of love."

In Friday's premiere, Joanie gains admittance to Columbia, but Joe doesn't have any way to pay for the Ivy League school. Meanwhile, Grant is lobbying for a raise at the hardware store.

Stern is perfectly cast and winning as "Regular Joe." And every member of the cast gets laughs — even the baby. Young Daley, in particular, is a hoot as an awkward teenager.

And a second episode of "Regular Joe" sent to critics is actually funnier than the first.

Who would've thought?

IT'S "THE PITTS": TV producers aren't dumb. Well, not all of them.

Take Mike Scully, the executive producer of Fox's new show "The Pitts." He fully recognizes how easy that title makes it for TV critics.

"We're kind of handing it to you on a silver platter, aren't we?" he said. "Please, feel free to tear it apart."

Well, that takes some of the fun out of it, although this is like shooting fish in a barrel. "The Pitts" is the pits.

At first glance, the Pitt family looks like the typical sitcom clan. Bob (Dylan Baker) is the optimistic dad; Liz (Kellie Waymire) is his perky wife; Faith (Lizzy Caplan) is their 15-year-old daughter; and Petey (David Henrie) is their 12-year-old son. The gag is that horrible things happen to them every week: They get struck by lightning or are attacked by birds or buy a haunted car or get abducted by aliens. Or, as in Sunday's premiere, the woman Bob stood up decades earlier returns with a bit of a fatal attraction.

It's supposed to be a live-action cartoon, but it's so far over the top you can't even see the top anymore. The characters are so ungrounded in reality — the Flintstones, Simpsons and Jetsons seem more real — that it's impossible to care what happens to the Pitts.

When you toss in the fact that none of this is remotely funny, the families that really get tortured are those who make the mistake of watching "The Pitts."

"TREMORS" IS TERRIBLE: The Sci Fi Channel seems to have a thing for big, scary worms. But while "Children of Dune" lasted six hours, "Tremors" is supposed to last a lot longer than that.

Let's hope not. Sci Fi's new series, which premieres with back-to-back episodes Friday at 7 and 8 p.m. (and repeats at 9 and 10 p.m.), is a pale imitation of the low-budget, big-fun 1990 film of the same name.

The series tries to be like "Northern Exposure" or "Ed" — a small town with colorful, interesting characters. Unfortunately, the writers forget to include any. The fact that they're sharing Perfection, Nev., with a monster that could pop up and eat them at any moment is, well, not that interesting, either.

The only member of the movie cast to return is Michael Gross ("Family Ties"), the monster-hunter who looks like he's a bit embarrassed to be associated with this project.

"Tremors" isn't funny, scary or suspenseful. It isn't even one of those shows that's so bad it's fun. It's just bad.

And all those "Farscape" fans still protesting out there are going to be furious when they see what Sci Fi put on in place of that canceled show.