`Hooperman' police drama plays John Ritter as its main card

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Hooperman ABC, Wednesday, 9-9:30 p.m. Premiere of new comedy-drama starring John Ritter. The best thing about this effective show, of course, is John Ritter, whose brilliant comic skills are used here in a role that is only partly comic.

Ritter plays a plainclothes San Francisco detective. It may be still another police drama, but there's a difference. Ritter also finds himself the hassled landlord of a run-down apartment building, a predicament promising all kinds of comedy setups for ensuing episodes.

That he's a harassed type is spelled out from the top of the show, as he's seen forcing himself out of bed and through a bizarre morning ritual to prepare for his day. But now, at the station, Ritter must frantically try to hire a superintendent by phone in the midst of desperate police business like hostage calls. And along with the building, he inherits a pesky dog that messes on the floor of the police captain's office - triggering her shrill ire.

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Later on, the dog is part of a ludicrously fascinating twist in a burglary-murder case Ritter becomes involved in. It's not particularly credible, but it does permit the show to play its main card - Ritter's winning touch in scenes both serious and silly. Dramatic moments actually heighten Ritter's comic impact at times, making him more real as a character and therefore giving his comic readings more effect.

At one tense point in this premi`ere episode, Ritter climbs out onto a building ledge to rescue a potential suicide. On the way he takes a quick look down, then utters an ``Oh, boy!'' that gets a laugh while it underscores the inherent danger.

Curiously, Ritter's style in sad moments are like the flip side of his comedy. He's very touching as he stands in his old-lady friend's apartment looking at her photo after she's been murdered - even though his technique reminds you of the way he reads comedy lines. He has some absurd moments on the witness stand that are pointed, funny, and, for a second or two, piercingly true - something rare indeed in a prime-time series.

It's all a little hoked up, especially the police station scenes, which tend to roll out an array of typical characters by the numbers. The show's topical opportunism involves one running gag about an alluring female officer trying to ``convert'' a gay male - trivializing an anguished subject. But most of the dialogue is catchy and reveals very savvy talent at work. And meanwhile, of course, it never hurts a show to offer delightful views of San Francisco every time the camera follows a character out-of-doors.

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