Bright Stars, Big Letdown
Even big names can't rescue this fall's lackluster lineup of comedies. On Thursday, a look at how the season's dramas fare.
BOSTON — Don't try to adjust your dial. If the faces on your TV screen look familiar, it's because this fall, the networks have gone back in time - circa the 1980s. They've drawn from a stable of television and movie stars that includes everyone from former "brat packer" Molly Ringwald to Bill Cosby.
Even Michael J. Fox is facing studio audiences again.
But while this season's comedies boast enough star power to light Los Angeles, it may not be enough to entice people to turn on the tube.
In the same way that few of the "Friends" knockoffs survived last season, familiarity - once again - may not breed hits. Only nine out of last season's 42 new shows are returning for a second year. And based on the fall pilots, only a handful of this year's is likely to weather the ratings war.
The comedy voted "most likely to succeed" by critics is Spin City (ABC), starring Fox as deputy mayor Mike Flaherty. His character is master of comic double takes and Machiavellian moves that would do Alex P. Keaton proud. Fox is a natural in this role - which isn't a stretch after his performance as a political sidekick in the 1995 movie "The American President." Carla Gugino holds her own as Flaherty's reporter girlfriend, and Richard Kind is noteworthy as the press secretary.
But the concept of a smart political whip cleaning up after his bumbling boss is hardly original (anyone remember "Benson"?), and the otherwise smartly written series is racy and relies on crudity to fill slow moments - a trend all too prevalent this season.
Fox's former "Family Ties" sibling Justine Bateman appears in NBC's Men Behaving Badly - a name that serves more as a warning label than a title. Starring Ron Eldard ("ER") and Rob Schneider ("Saturday Night Live") and based on a British TV show, this vulgar version is not likely to appeal to anyone on either side of the Atlantic. In what appears to be a trend among this year's comedies, the show deals in a juvenile way with sex and is downright unappealing. Too bad for Bateman, who, with the right vehicle, might have had more of a comeback chance.
Brooke Shields is suddenly popular again with the launch of NBC's Suddenly Susan. Her rise is yet another indication that a guest appearance on "Friends" can be a Midas touch for actors. (Look at what it's done for Tom Selleck.) Critics are gushing, but it seems a bit premature to crown Shields the new queen of comedy. She plays a sheltered woman who has just left her husband-to-be at the altar and wants to live life on her own. To get a job writing a magazine column, she must prove to boss Judd Nelson that she's an "interesting person." Apparently that means getting drunk and smoking cigars in a bar with a co-worker. Still, with its cushy time slot just after "Seinfeld," "Suddenly Susan" won't have to work hard to bring home the ratings.
Molly Ringwald, another '80s teen star, is the only bright spot in Townies (ABC). The forgettable comedy about life in a small New England fishing town borrows heavily from "Mystic Pizza." (It even features Conchata Ferrell from the movie.) Bathroom humor and excessive stereotyping of small-town life abound.
Bill Cosby is also back for another try. Cosby (CBS) borrows from the British hit "One Foot in the Grave." The show is less upbeat than fans of "The Cosby Show" are used to, but it still packs plenty of comedic punch. The Cos stars as Hilton Lucas, a downsized airport worker with too much time on his hands and too many home-improvement ideas for his wife's liking. Phylicia Rashad again serves as a wifely foil to Cosby's banter. And Madeline Kahn adds delightful lunacy as their friend.
Besides "Cosby," viewers won't see many minority faces in comedies on the major networks. Smaller networks have stepped in to fill the niche, but unfortunately, their offerings are far from satisfying.
Take, for example, Malcolm & Eddie. Cosby's former TV son, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, stars with comedian Eddie Griffin in this African-American "Odd Couple." It is the best of UPN's new Monday-night lineup, but it still has a long way to go.
Following "Malcolm & Eddie," Sherman Hemsley, of "The Jeffersons" fame, stars in Goode Behavior (UPN). Hemsley's broad comedic shoulders aren't enough to save this comedy - about a convict who moves in with his estranged son - from mediocrity.
The third Monday-night newcomer on UPN is Sparks. If only there were some. This dull legal comedy features James Avery, the father from "Fresh Prince of Bel Air," and "Head of the Class" alum Robin Givens.
Also in the "not worth rushing home to watch" category is Lush Life (FOX), which stars Karyn Parsons from "Fresh Prince of Bel Air," and Lori Petty, from the movie "Tank Girl," as unlikely buddies. Better titled "Women Behaving Badly," this silly show got our vote as the season's worst offering - just nudging out its male counterpart on NBC.
Still needing some work but clearly on the right track is NBC's Something So Right. It is a charming take on two divorces (avec kids) starting a new life together. "Brady Bunch" comparisons are inevitable, but stars Mel Harris ("thirtysomething") and Jere Burns ("Dear John") sweetly skewer family stereotypes in a half hour that manages to be both funny and sincere. Some unneeded sexual innuendo will hopefully fall by the wayside as the show finds its feet.
Of the four comedies featuring teachers this fall, two have some known star power. Pearl (CBS) stars "Cheers" barmaid Rhea Perlman as a middle-aged widow returning to college. Perlman's character is likable, and Malcolm McDowell is convincing as her sardonic humanities teacher. But based on the pilot, "Pearl" will need more glue in its script to make this potentially clever show stick.
Despite its faults, "Pearl" outclasses Mr. Rhodes (NBC), a comedy about a hip teacher (Tom Rhodes) at a boarding school that draws its supporting actors from shows like "Barney Miller" and "Wings." As with some of the other classroom comedies, little teaching occurs and hipness outweighs humor.
Finally Ink, a show CBS is banking on to boost last season's lackluster ratings, won't debut until Oct. 21. ("Murphy Brown" creator Diane English was brought in to give it a major overhaul.) The comedy stars real-life husband-and-wife Ted Danson ("Cheers") and Mary Steenburgen as a divorced couple working for the same newspaper.
The verdict: Fall is full of fine actors crying out for an equally fine showcase. The main culprit: a dearth of good writing. So, what's a viewer to do? Aim the remote at "Cosby," "Spin City," and "Something So Right." And hold out hope for "Pearl" and "Ink."
GUIDE TO FALL'S NEW COMEDIES
8:30 The Steve Harvey Show (Sept. 8)*
9:30 Life With Roger (Aug. 25)
8:00 Cosby (Sept. 16)
9:00 Party Girl (Sept. 9)
9:30 Lush Life (Sept. 9)
8:30 Mr. Rhodes (Sept. 23)
8:30 Malcolm & Eddie (Aug. 26)
9:00 Goode Behavior (Aug. 26)
9:30 Sparks (Aug. 26)
8:30 Life's Work (Sept. 17)
9:30 Spin City (Sept. 17)
8:30 Something So Right (Sept. 17)
8:30 Homeboys in Outer Space (Aug. 27)
8:30 Townies (Sept. 18)
8:30 Pearl (Sept. 18)
9:30 Public Morals (TBA)
9:30 Men Behaving Badly (Sept. 18)
8:30 Nick Freno: Licensed Teacher (Aug. 28)
9:30 The Jamie Foxx Show (Aug. 28)
9:30 Suddenly Susan (Sept. 19)
8:30 Sabrina, the Teenage Witch (Sept. 27)
9:00 Clueless (Sept. 20)
8:30 Everybody Loves Raymond (Sept. 13)
9:30 Common Law (Sept. 21)
9:30 Love and Marriage (Sept. 28)
* Dates in parentheses indicate when the program premires.