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The Boston Phoenix Pretty Is Not Comedy

The Worst And The Best Of The New TV Sit-coms

By Robert David Sullivan

OCTOBER 20, 1997:  If NBC is finally tired of its "must-see TV" slogan, might I suggest an ad campaign based on the Marilyn Manson song "The Beautiful People"? Actually, if the network wants to approximate the level of wit on a typical NBC sit-com, it could update that annoying video of the early '90s and call it "I'm Too Sexy To Be Funny."

The number-one network has a record 18 sit-coms on the air this fall; count up those on all six networks and you get 60 weekly attempts to be one-tenth as funny as a subpar I Love Lucy episode. About half of them involve children, so they don't count. (Ever since The Simpsons went on the air, the only funny shows about growing up have been animated.) Most of the rest copy elements of the top-ranked Seinfeld -- shorter and shorter scenes, an unchanging ironic tone, and "no hugs" (as co-creator Larry David once put it) at the end of an episode. But the networks are oddly unwilling to imitate the single best thing about Seinfeld: the character of George Costanza, a brilliant combination of total insecurity and utter shamelessness. Jason Alexander is bold enough to play George as a total loser, and nominal star Jerry Seinfeld is generous enough to let him get more laughs.

Ever since the insipid Friends became known as the most successful knockoff of Seinfeld, we always seem to get a George without the extra weight or glasses and a Kramer without the bad haircut or loud shirts. They may look better on the cover of Entertainment Weekly, but they look less like ordinary people, and this is not an improvement in the field of comedy. It's funny when George pretends to be handicapped to get a cushy job; it would just be in bad taste if he were attractive and confident enough to get a great job anyway. To take a similar example from British TV, would Rowan Atkinson's Mr. Bean be as funny stealing a comic book from a little kid if we didn't think someone that goofy-looking deserved some pleasure in life?

Typical of the recent sit-com characters is David Spade of Just Shoot Me (NBC, Tuesday at 9:30 p.m.), which was added to the regular schedule after a short run in the spring. Spade plays a guy who works with models at a fashion magazine but can't get dates with them. This set-up makes any longtime sit-com viewer think of sexually frustrated characters like Cliff Clavin on Cheers. But Spade is different: he's trim, has stylish clothes, and obviously spends a lot of money on haircuts. He may get rejected by humorless supermodels (i.e., bitches), but he's always got a clever one-liner, and he never lets us forget that he's David Spade -- that whatever happens on this show, he has no trouble getting women in real life.

Not surprisingly, women are also part of this glamming-down trend. Take Veronica's Closet (NBC, Thursday at 9:30 p.m.) inevitably the most-watched new sit-com because of its time slot between Seinfeld and ER. The over-hyped Kirstie Alley stars as a lingerie-company founder who's attractive enough to appear on the cover of her own catalogue. The show's opening sequence has Alley posing for cameras and making goofy faces as hair gets into her eyes; she also loses her balance trying to crawl seductively across the floor. Like the pratfalls of Brooke Shields and Jenny McCarthy on their sit-coms, this scene conveys to us the hilarious idea that even beautiful women are subject to the laws of gravity. But they never have bad taste in clothes (meanwhile, millions of viewers watch The Drew Carey Show just to marvel at Mimi's tacky outfits) or even a really bad hair day (which the indisputably classy Mary Tyler Moore would suffer through for our enjoyment).

Among Alley's supporting cast is former MTV hunk Dan Cortese as an underwear model turned public-relations man. On one episode, Cortese uses a made-up word ("akribitz") in a press release and it then pops up on CNN, in Women's Wear Daily, etc. If Cosmo Kramer did this -- or Cheers' Woody Boyd, or Gracie Allen -- it would be because he honestly believed "akribitz" is a word, and nothing would shake him from this belief. But the always-cool Cortese doesn't do it because he's dumb; he does it because he doesn't give a fuck. He explains that he needed a synonym for "increase" and was too lazy to get a thesaurus.

The show repeatedly mentions that Cortese got his PR job because of his looks, yet we're not supposed to think he's a jerk or mentally impaired or flawed in any way. What exactly is funny about this situation? And don't say that it's a satire on our society's obsession with physical appearance. If Veronica's Closet were a satire, we would see the poor guys that Cortese beats to get his job, and we would see the women who can't make it as models, and the show could be cruelly funny in an Absolutely Fabulous kind of way.

Instead, we're asked to find these characters endearing: Cortese, Alley as the self-absorbed but never venal Veronica, and Wallace Langham as a prissy but good-looking assistant always ready with a smart quip. Kathy Najimy, on the other hand, is genuinely endearing as another assistant who can make wisecracks but is obviously hiding some real regrets about where she's ended up in life. The best scene in the series so far had Alley visiting Najimy's apartment for the first time, with the two women awkwardly trying to become close friends. Dump the rest of the cast, put Kirstie and Kathy in a different setting, and you could get a decent show.

If Veronica's Closet is a watchable disappointment, Dharma and Greg (ABC, Wednesday at 8:30) is an outright fraud. A network press release says the show is about "love at first site" (Dan Cortese must moonlight as a proofreader at ABC) between two people "from completely different worlds." Dharma Finkelstein (cookie-cutter blonde Jenna Elfman) has "unbridled passion and openness," which she demonstrates by yelling a lot, wearing tight T-shirts, and spending money frivolously (e.g., flying from San Francisco to Reno to get a really good slice of pie). She also has an insatiable sexual appetite. Somehow, this behavior is supposed to cause complications when she marries a young, horny, good-looking US attorney with rich parents.

Co-star Thomas Gibson, who played an infinitely more complex character on Chicago Hope, understandably sees nothing wrong with this situation. Unlike I Love Lucy's Ricky Ricardo or Bewitched's Darren Stephens, Greg displays no irritation or mixed feelings about his wife's allegedly wacky behavior. Gibson just wears a shit-eating grin and lets Elfman carry the show. But the important thing is, his character gets lots of sex.

Since there is zero comic tension between the two stars, the jokes in Dharma and Greg involve the in-laws. Dharma's dad permanently fried his brain on drugs years ago, which means he can act stoned but ABC can deny that he smokes pot now. Greg's snooty parents are more anachronistic than the hippies. Consider this creaky joke from the premiere: Greg's parents discover that Dharma is Jewish. There is an awkward pause until they dimly remember a Jewish couple they've socialized with. Mom gives Dharma a frigid smile and asks, "Do you know them?"

Dharma and Greg is doing quite well in the ratings, probably because viewers are hungry for a romantic sit-com (which is why Mad About You has been able to coast along for years on okay writing). My prediction is that the producers, desperate to come up with comic situations, will have the in-laws move in with each other by January. The ratings, meanwhile, will fall steadily until the show's cancellation next spring.

Union Square, NBC's other new Thursday sit-com (8:30 p.m.), is also filled with Gap models who never look ridiculous. Here, they hang out at a diner and trade one-liners about pop-culture icons like Neil Simon and Alex Trebek ("I'll take 'What's in it for me' for $500"). And everyone seems embarrassed by Harriet Sansom Harris (the conniving agent Bebe from Frasier), who plays a real-estate broker and tries to put some juice into her lines. Jeffrey Anderson-Gunter, as the Jamaican owner of the restaurant, is a prime example of an insidious stereotype on prime-time TV. Except on the all-black sit-coms, virtually every black character on a network comedy is a variation on Robert Guillaume's Benson from Soap. They're unflappable -- almost regal -- no matter what job they have, and they are incredibly patient with the silly white folks all around them. Besides Union Square, we have Michael Boatman on Spin City, Khandi Alexander on NewsRadio, Simbi Khali on 3rd Rock from the Sun, and the slightly more animated Daryl Mitchell on Veronica's Closet.

There are a few places to find refuge from the smugness of NBC's glamor-industry sit-coms. So far, the best new entry is Working (NBC, Wednesday at 9:30 p.m.), which unfortunately airs against Ellen (still on a roll after its coming-out episode). Fred Savage of The Wonder Years is a nervous young man who has just taken a soul-sucking office job at a huge company in an unspecified industry and city. (Between scenes, we get the usual establishment shot of a glass skyscraper, but with a nice touch: the building is constantly being circled by some menacing black birds.) Savage is a welcome contrast to the pretty boys of NBC's other sit-coms. For a start, he wears a dull blue suit that hides his physique and directs our attention to his face, which isn't such a bad thing for someone who can act.

The pilot is a bit too carefully written, as most pilots are, but some pungent lines get through (for example, all employees are ordered to take off Martin Luther King Day or Yom Kippur, but not both). And Maurice Godin is well-cast as a handsome -- but enjoyably despicable -- executive who tries to woo Savage over to the dark side. The snappily paced Working also has a cast larger than all the other sit-coms combined, at least if you count the "Mongol hordes" (a term favored by the company's HR department) swarming in the background of the office scenes. Realistic office comedies have been rare on TV since the invention of e-mail and other high-tech disasters-waiting-to-happen (only NewsRadio has tried to have fun with them), so Working is rich with possible storylines.

Airing one hour after NBC's Savage look at corporate culture, MTV's Austin Stories (Wednesday at 10:30 p.m.) presents another extreme of young adulthood in America. The characters in this show have just enough intelligence and ambition to hang on above the lowest rung in their mid-sized Texas city. Austin Stories has a weird kind of sweetness; call it the slacker version of The Andy Griffith Show. Laura House (the regular actors all use their real names on the show) is a reporter for a throwaway weekly who is unfazed by anything, including a stalker with a spelling problem. Howard Kremer, whose name is suitably one letter off from that guy on Seinfeld, has inexplicable luck with women and a fondness for really small-time scams (like grabbing the free brochures from an Austin visitors' center and selling them on the street for a buck each). And Brad "Chip" Pope is a genial guy destined always to be a doormat. In one episode, he starts a band and the other members promptly kick him out of it -- but still practice in his apartment.

This low-budget show makes virtues of its necessities. Instead of being marooned on the expensive but antiseptic soundstages of NBC sit-coms, the cast walk the streets of a real city and interact with other recognizable human beings. The show delights in eccentricities without being mean-spirited, as shown in a montage of auditions for Pope's doomed band: every age, ethnicity, and body shape you can imagine flits across the screen. The acting is low-key and the stories are slight, and that's a perfectly acceptable way to approach humor. I laughed when Pope strode through downtown Austin with a look of deep concentration, an armful of posters for his band -- and pre-torn strips of masking tape hanging all over his face and T-shirt. True, you can see people like that all the time on the streets of New York, but they never show up on Caroline in the City.

Two other new sit-coms are worth their videotape. Alright Already (WB, Sunday at 9:30 p.m.) has a good excuse for resembling Seinfeld, since star Carol Leifer was the model for Elaine. The plots are typical for Seinfeld. On one episode, Leifer pretends to have a baby in order to get her neighbors to turn down their music; on another, she's embarrassed when a boyfriend sees her buying dozens of rolls of toilet paper at a discount store. Wisely, the producers set the show in Florida rather than New York, which allows Leifer to riff on a different set of annoyances (strip malls, condos, etc.). And Alright Already has the most original character among the new sit-coms: Leifer's younger sister (Stacy Galina), who has started to act like a Florida retiree about 40 years too early (the high point of her weekend is a "low-sodium luau" at her elderly parents' "clubhouse").

Then there's George and Leo (CBS, Monday at 9:30 p.m.), a stripped-down vehicle for TV great Bob Newhart, who plays a widowed bookstore owner on Martha's Vineyard. The other characters barely register, even Judd Hirsch as the pushy in-law who comes to the island for the wedding of Newhart's son and decides to stay for good. (Bob's only employee at the bookstore is, yes, an unflappable black man who rolls his eyes at the clumsy attempts of whites to communicate with him.) One twist to Newhart's standard character here is that he's a conservative Catholic. So when a young Nothing Sacred-type priest gushes about how liberal the Church has become, Newhart waits a beat and stammers, "But, um, Satan is still bad, right?"

Yes, and Newhart proves that a good sense of timing is still more important than a good haircut for a comic actor. Too bad it's so difficult to put on a magazine cover.


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