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"The Grown-Ups"; "The Parkers"; "Undressed"

By Robert David Sullivan

AUGUST 23, 1999:  The Italian political strategist Machiavelli, writing 500 years before Tony and his mother appropriated his best ideas on The Sopranos, suggested that a ruler who really wants to shake things up would be wise to keep his hands off the most visible traditions of a society (flags, holidays, the New Hampshire primary). In other words, the dumb citizenry will be so reassured by seeing the same decorations in the Hallmark store that they won't notice radical changes going on around them -- like, say, putting a Scientologist majority on the Supreme Court. Conversely, a ruler who wants to keep the status quo, despite popular demands for reform, would be wise to make some high-profile cosmetic changes to cover up his lack of innovation. Take, for example, a First Lady who boldly and shockingly breaks two centuries of tradition by running for the US Senate, for no apparent reason other than to vote the same way as the person she wants to replace while raising money for her next campaign.

The same principle applies in the realm of entertainment. And so let us consider the first shot of the first episode of the first new series of the 1999-2000 TV season: Jaleel White, who played übernerd Steve Urkel for eight years on the sit-com Family Matters, is holding a basketball. He's not wearing oversized glasses, or clunky shoes, or pants hiked halfway up to his armpits. Instead, he's wearing shorts and an athletic jersey with the sleeves cut off to display his healthy-looking arms. Then he speaks, and though he's still a little high-pitched, he no longer sounds like clown-car alarm. He resembles -- and moves almost as gracefully as -- a young Gregory Hines.

The physical transformation is so striking that you don't really pay any notice to the dialogue in the opening scene of The Grown-Ups (premiering Monday, August 23, at 8:30 p.m. on UPN and moving to 9 p.m. the following week). You may even forget one of the cardinal rules of American television: when a show looks different, the writing is anything but.

You'll probably return to your senses by the time White's character (Calvin Frazier, a young executive in a corrugated-box company) swings open the unlocked door of his best friend's downtown Chicago apartment without knocking.

"Why is it so dark in here?", Calvin innocently asks.

"We were about to have sex," snaps the best friend's wife, prompting hearty chuckles from audience members who can identify with this Noël Coward-like situation. (More likely, an intern deduced from the long pause between lines that he should turn up the laugh track.)

A few minutes later, a good-looking character is described as "a black JFK Jr.," though by the time the episode airs, you might instead hear a hastily redubbed line.

Shortly after that, Calvin bonds with a new roommate who's played by Soleil Moon Frye -- best known as the sickeningly adorable Punky Brewster in the 1984-'88 sit-com of the same name. On The Grown-Ups, Frye is a jaded young woman who likes to talk about guys' butts. Together, White and Frye confirm a more recent rule of American television and film: when former child stars reappear on screen as adults, they must perform some weird kind of penance by appearing to be obsessed with sex. (Other examples include The Piano's cute little Anna Paquin as a nympho in the film Hurlyburly and Rick Schroder of Silver Spoons and Fred Savage of The Wonder Years caught in embarrassing nude scenes on NYPD Blue and Working, respectively.)

Aside from this safe form of pedophilia and the relatively hard-edged musical bridges between scenes, the most conspicuous thing about The Grown-Ups is its interracial cast. Calvin and the girl of his dreams are black, but his roommate is white, and best friend Gordon (Dave Ruby) is a short, dumpy white guy with zero self-esteem. The pilot episode also has several instances of white characters flirting with black characters and vice versa (but no actual interracial couple). This is all quite laudable, and it puts UPN in the rare position of being ahead of the curve: the big four networks, chastened by civil-rights leaders, are now scrambling to add black characters to what began as an all-white line-up of new shows.

The trouble is, the relationship between Calvin and Gordon is about as convincing as most lifelong friendships in sit-com land -- which is not much. I may be guilty of a double standard here: just as black Americans often find themselves judged more harshly than white Americans doing the same job, it may be harder to accept a friendship on a TV series when it seems to be the result of "balanced ticket" casting. The lanky Calvin and pudgy Gordon bring to mind Jerry and George of Seinfeld, but without the comic tension. There was something genuine about George's attachment to his more attractive and successful friend, even in the face of some fairly brutal treatment (such as Jerry tagging George with the nickname "Biff," helpfully explaining that the Death of a Salesman character is "the biggest loser in the history of American literature"). Even the gentlest barbs on The Grown-Ups make me wonder how Calvin and Gordon became friends in the first place.

To judge from the pilot, The Grown-Ups is far from the worst sit-com on television, and its good-naturedness makes it preferable to sour entries like Veronica's Closet or Becker. But so far it seems content simply to look fresh. The first episode has a tired plot about Calvin being mistaken as gay, which reminded me that Will and Grace has successfully used the opposite Machiavellian strategy. That show has all the trappings of a standard NBC sit-com -- thin white characters, establishment shots of tasteful Manhattan apartment buildings, bursts of upbeat synthetic music between scenes -- but at its core is the radical notion that gay people are just as deserving of respect as the next Gap customer.

Much more raggedly produced but also more fun than The Grown-Ups is The Parkers (premiering Monday, August 30, at 8:30 p.m. on UPN). This is a spinoff of the teen sit-com Moesha, with Countess Vaughn continuing her role as Kim Parker, who's described by the network as "Mo's notorious, boy-crazy friend." (I haven't seen Moesha for a while, so I can't vouch for the notoriety of anyone connected with the show.) The gimmick here is that Kim is inseparable from her equally sassy mother, Mo'Nique (played by stand-up comic Mo'Nique), and at the end of the pilot episode, both are enrolled as freshmen at Santa Monica Junior College.

In the opening scene, Mo'Nique and Kim Parker come off as the most forbidding mother-daughter team since Harriet and Nellie Oleson of Little House on the Prairie. They sweep into view wearing identical tacky outfits, and a neighbor pronounces them "ghetto-fabulous Doublemint twins." It soon becomes apparent, however, that Mo'Nique and Kim are meant to be unequivocally sympathetic characters, and thus less interesting than they could be. Countess Vaughn, in vibrant lipstick and velvety straight brown hair, is nevertheless quite watchable as she alternates between joy and chagrin at her mother's constant presence in her life. (Is this a lesbian version of an Oedipus complex?) But sending a blunt-spoken, working-class woman back to school seems to be a sit-com idea that never works, if the Rhea Perlman vehicle Pearl and Comedy Central's Strangers with Candy are any indication.

One of my guilty pleasures this summer is watching Maude Undressed -- I mean, Maude and MTV's Undressed. And that's in part because they are such great contrasts. Maude (nightly at 10:30 p.m. on TV Land) is, of course, the 1972-78 sit-com with the incomparable Beatrice Arthur as a cross between devoted suburban housewife and World War II tank commander. The show is loud, stagy, and politically incorrect in ways that would be unimaginable today. Most famously, there is the episode where Maude decides to have an abortion. (These days, unwanted babies in prime time are tastefully and conveniently eliminated through miscarriages.) At first Maude is ambivalent. "I'm going to have a strong and healthy baby," she yells. "And if I'm lucky, at six months he'll be strong and healthy enough to bust out of his crib and run away from home!"

Maude disappeared from the rerun circuit for a while, probably because its high-decibel performances and showy attempts at "relevance" made it seem old-fashioned in the Cheers and Seinfeld era. Now it seems fresh again, if only because no contemporary series tackles the problems of middle age with such irreverence. And as for the drinking on this show -- for years, producers have been trying to come up with a successful American version of Absolutely Fabulous, never realizing that we had one 20 years before Patsy and Edina came on the scene.

There is no one like Maude on the new soap opera Undressed (weeknights at 11 p.m. on MTV). Indeed, there doesn't seem to be anyone under the age of 25 here, and neither is there any yelling, or harsh lighting, or bad wardrobe choices. Each episode jumps around among several continuing stories about sexual relationships, and there always seems to be at least one clothes-shedding scene. Undressed seems designed to get viewers in the mood for their own bedroom action, but make sure you turn the set off before Loveline comes on at 11:30, or you may be put off by tales of venereal disease and bizarre hygiene habits.

Undressed appears to take place exclusively at night, in the dorm rooms and loft apartments of an unnamed but clearly gentrified major city. Some of the characters are students and some others seem to have jobs, but it's hard to tell, since the elliptic dialogue never strays very far from sex. Most of the female characters are looking for long-term relationships, but the males generally range from sensitive and ineffectual (one guy, who's been pleading impotence, explains to his girl, "I just don't want to disappoint you") to unreliable and loutish (after sex, one guy announces, "I'm just not accepting applications for the position of girlfriend right now").

There's another late-'90s wrinkle here: viewers can log onto the MTV Web site (www.undressed.mtv.com) and vote for the best character and storyline of the previous night's episode. Do you like "The one where an enigmatic message on Sally's answering machine makes her think her beau Stan wants to break up, so she vows to find out what's wrong with her by interviewing all of her ex-boyfriends"? How about "The one where Emma's transference therapy with Brian backfires when he can't be intimate with her without 'Mr. Fuzzy' "? By the way, Mr. Fuzzy is a sock puppet, not something you can buy at Condom World.

I don't know how much influence these Web polls have over the writing process at Undressed, but you can bet that Maude wouldn't have given a damn about how the folks at home thought she should run her life.

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