Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Payne on CBS

By Devin D. O'Leary

MARCH 15, 1999:  Sweeps month is over, the ax is falling and it's time for the networks to start bringing out their midseason reinforcements. CBS is banking on TV stalwart John Laroquette ("Night Court," "The John Laroquette Show") to bring in the numbers with a long-awaited remake of the short-lived British cult series "Fawlty Towers."

Created by Monty Python alum John Cleese and partner/co-star Connie Booth in 1975, "Fawlty Towers" related the farcical adventures of low-rent hotelier Basil Fawlty. Thanks to CBS, the intolerant, rude and generally paranoid Royal Payne (née Basil Fawlty) has now been transported from the English countryside to a northern California bed and breakfast. Aside from the nominal shift in setting, our main character has retained nearly all his previous trappings. JoBeth Williams has replaced Prunella Scales as the wife, Julie Benz steps in for Connie Booth as the housekeeper (and long-suffering moral conscience to her employer) and Rick Batalla takes over for Andrew Sachs as the much-abused immigrant bellboy. Following the latest Hollywood trend, the bellboy (now dubbed "Mo") has gone from a broad Spanish caricature to an indeterminate "foreigner"--it's so much easier to be racist, I suppose, when no one can tell what ethnicity you're insulting. On the whole, the new actors are near mirror reflections of their British counterparts.

The first two "preview" episodes of the series (airing March 15 and 17) reveal a show with vast comic potential, but a cast that's still searching for its sea legs. The timing has yet to hit the fevered pitch that high farce requires, and the characters don't quite feel "lived in." For his part, Laroquette has yet to make the title character his own--as he did so wonderfully with his insufferable bastard of a prosecuting attorney, Dan Fielding, on "Night Court." Basil Fawlty was more than just a penny-pinching bastard with a dilapidated hotel and a carping wife. Under John Cleese's deft comic hand, Fawlty became a model for wounded pride--a modern prig who fancied himself an English gentleman and was always defeated in his plans to improve his hellish lot in life. I suppose it's easier in England to create that sense of pompous dignity. Here's hoping that Laroquette's Payne can find the same balance of nasty self-centeredness and phony pretension as Cleese's Fawlty.

On the plus side, the American scriptwriters should be congratulated for creating original plotlines which so closely ape the British show that they could be mistaken for long-lost episodes. The first CBS show features a classic "Fawlty" situation: Seems Royal Payne has forgotten his anniversary, so he steals a valuable brooch from lost and found and gives it to his wife. Unfortunately, the brooch's original owner returns offering a reward and Payne conspires to steal his wife's gift back. The second episode (in which a faulty new phone system allows the hotel owners to "eavesdrop" on their guests) allows even more opportunity for comic hijinks.

If Laroquette and crew can just pick up the pace, CBS has got a hit on its hands.

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