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TELEVISION REVIEW

'Halfway Home' is juvenile, amateurish, vulgar -- and pretty funny

Seated, from left: Jessica Makinson, Jordan Black, Oscar Nunez, Regan Burns, and Octavia Spencer; and, standing, Kevin Ruf in " Halfway Home." (Ian White)

I am a bad person, such a very bad person. I laughed at a spotty new improvisational Comedy Central series called "Halfway Home" that will seriously offend the sensibilities of any viewer who knows PBS doesn't stand for Peanut Butter Sandwich and anyone who's over 17, which, believe it or not, I am. The show, premiering tonight at 10:30, is juvenile, vulgar, and crude, and yet, I still think it contains more sparks of originality than TV's top-rated comedy, "Two and a Half Men."

"Halfway Home" is in the same family of comedies as "Reno 911!," "10 Items or Less," "Lovespring International," and "Campus Ladies." These shows are loosely structured, hit-or-miss, and, at times, surprisingly amateurish for major cable channels. But, because they're so cheaply made, they are low-stakes enough to burrow into some strange subcultures and unearth some freshly twisted characters and situations. They are the current iteration of cult TV, and they have in their family tree Christopher Guest's movies, including "Best in Show" and "Waiting for Guffman."

In "Halfway Home," five paroled ex-cons live together under supervision by a touchy-feely counselor named Kenny (Kevin Ruf , the executive producer and an alumnus of the Groundlings). From the outside, the LA house recalls "The Real Word: New Orleans," but inside it's a dump. Likewise, the ex-cons only sound like a dangerous crew. The ironically named Serenity (Octavia Spencer ) is a tough cookie convicted of burglary; Carly (Jessica Makinson ) is a flaky druggie; Al (Regan Burns ) is an arsonist; Eulogio (Oscar Nunez ) is a prostitute; and C-Bass (Jordan Black ) is a would-be terrorist. But really they're a bunch of misfits who pick on one another like siblings.

The big joke in tonight's episode is that Al the arsonist is a goody-goody who says he smells marijuana burning. This leads to a series of supervised urine tests; a few racial barbs fired from Al to C-Bass and Serena, both of whom are black; and fierce bragging by Eulogio, who claims to have slept with countless famous men including Iggy Pop. Nunez, who plays Oscar on "The Office," is one of the show's producers, and he goes over the top with swish. All the actors similarly parody stereotypes, particularly Black as C-Bass, a suburban kid who pretends he's the next Malcolm X.

As the troupe hams it up, the jokes fall flat more often than they fly. Upcoming episodes try to milk humor out of pothead Carly's efforts to break the pogo-sticking world record; Kenny's refusal to share his air conditioning during a heat wave; and a saltpeter scare, as the men obsess over whether the Bureau of Prisons is trying to dull their libidos by drugging their food. The resulting jokes frequently involve masturbation, and the farce never strays too far from the bathroom.

Any yet ultimately, even when the humor fails, the characters are kind of dear. There's a bit of inspired zaniness lurking in Comedy Central's latest attempt to find another "South Park." That, or I've just been eating a few too many Peanut Butter Sandwiches.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit boston.com/ae/tv/blog/.

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