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Secrets and Lies

The Fall Sitcom To Watch Is the One You're Supposed To Hate

Don't mean to undercut the ads boasting "Critics Hate It," but when I watched the since yanked debut of UPN's The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer, this critic thought it was just great. Right, the farce about the black English nobleman who winds up as Lincoln's servant—not slave, a rumor that helped fuel protests (sight unseen, I'll warrant, with dry nonsurprise) by the NAACP and others. Since the protesters objected to the show's existence, they weren't placated by the network's meaningless substitution, in last week's premiere, of another episode for the pilot. Then again, you could hardly expect UPN to run new ads gloating "Black People Hate It," could you?

Before the controversy got cranked up, I was all set to sow confusion by heaping praise on Desmond Pfeiffer. Meant it, too; I've long held "Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?" to be the most inspired kiddie joke ever, and I love the cheerfully crass way this show's grade-school facetiousness rips up the papier-mâché past, razzing Clinton while gobbing Ken Burns in his baby-faced kisser. Back when I thought the stuffed shirts bridling at the travesty of the historical Lincoln were the harrumphers to refute—I'm tolerably sure his reputation will survive, my self—I planned to patiently explain that any child could see the show's got no connection to him.

As for the racial issue, it never crossed my mind. If you want TV to get steamed about, check out the September 28 Ally McBeal, which took all of five minutes to set up a black pastor in a comical sex predicament and show us some nice Caucasian lawyers being bullied by an Asian dragon lady. But an undignified romp about the Lincoln White House, with batty Mrs. L. (Christine Estabrook, sensationally good) clapping on Abe's stovepipe hat to croon "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" and suave Desmond (Chi McBride) bemoaning the Great Emancipator's jones for telegraph sex—now, that just makes me giggle.

Swallowing my belief that comedy doesn't need to be good for you, I'd even argue that this silliness is healthy; I say the African American test audiences UPN claims enjoyed Desmond more than white ones got it right. I could also note how the flip-the-script stroke of making the hero a black aristocrat with a white manservant—Max Baker plays Pinky to McBride's burly Brain—spoofs viewer expectations while helping to rationalize the series's antic tone. If I were in the mood, I might even parse Desmond's status as the lone smart cookie in a White House full of bumblers as a slapstick supporting brief to the thesis that the slaves freed themselves, but the show is so genially piffling that I'd sound fatuous. I don't fault the pro testers' opportunism; dramatizing is sues is what activists do, and in L.A. any call to boycott a TV show gets press. But I didn't know whether to be contemptuous or unnerved when the L.A. City Council, which shouldn't have fuck-all to do with this, passed a resolution condemning Desmond while disavowing—yeah, right—any censorious intent.

Meanwhile, on the progressive-sitcom front, this season's contribution to enlightenment—a timorous one, as gays fed up with screen homosex equaling celibacy have already hooted—is NBC's Will & Grace, which dares to bring us a straight woman sharing digs with a nonhetero (but between, ah, "relationships") male roommate. Inevitably, the show takes care to make Eric McCormack's Will an up standing, manly type without effeminate mannerisms while fobbing off the bitchy-queen routines on his pal Jack, a second banana flambé played to a crisp by Sean Daly. But even though the title could be Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (But Not Staying for Dessert), the show's still got plenty going for it, not least Debra Messing's Grace. The producers must have been so concentrated on making Will palatable that they forgot to do the same for her; she's got a genuine, slightly haywire personality whose volatile streak doesn't play entirely for laughs, the more intriguingly since you can't tell if that's just Messing herself showing through the chinks in Grace's motivations.

Either way, she sticks out like her last name's Slick, because what Roseanne wrought Brett Butler has taken away. Sure plenty of new sitcoms feature female leads, but forget about their heroines being opinionated or even interesting. They're star vehicles star ring not-quite-stars, for whom hack writers have concocted connect-the-dots identities best described as non specifically winning, on the pert-to-perky scale. I love Christina Applegate, but she deserves better than her role in Jesse as a single mom whose spunkiness is instantly rewarded by a Chilean dreamboat (Bruno Campos) moving in next door. And I love Fired Up's Leah Remini too, but she should be starring with Janeane Garofalo in a goof remake of The Dark Mirror—not stuck in CBS's The King of Queens with Kevin James's galootish sub–Ralph Kramden, who keeps saying he adores her while making her look stupid. I think he's playing the network. As for Jerry Stiller's part as Remini's cranky dad, well—that glue factory's a-calling, no?

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