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?

Yet both shows top CBS's inanely jubilant Maggie Winters, with Faith Ford's busted marriage shipping her home just in time for her 15th high-school reunion. Uh-huh, 15th—the one everybody goes to; bet anything the script said 20th, the star held out for 10th, and the conflict of perks vs. credibility (check your driver's license, Ms. Ford—unless it's fibbing, too) spawned a compromise. Didn't know your old Murphy Brown pal Corky was a star, did you? Me neither, but like many sitcoms, this one's really about TV, with Maggie's divorce standing in for the end of Murphy's run and her welcoming hometown equaling CBS. And what's TV-land like? Nasty when not fawning, from what I can tell: the debut gave Winters/Ford opportunities to both score off a less attractive classmate (Ellen's gifted Clea Lewis, who indeed is less well known) and make a maudlin victory speech about her happiness at being back where she belongs. You know, where munchkins will suck up to her.

Sports Night, this fall's official classy sitcom, is literally set in TV-land—behind the scenes of a jock talkfest modeled on ESPN's Sports Center and anchored by best buds Dan (Josh Charles) and Casey (Peter Krause), with Robert Guillaume as their (crusty? How did you know?) producer. Don't blame the actors for the show's vainglorious subtext, though; in the premiere, creator Aaron Sorkin, recently anointed by Tad Friend in The New Yorker as an artist crucified by network philistines, includes not one but two speeches in which his heroes denounce the "suits" (oh how the biz's alleged creative types love that preening bit of slang). Now, Sports Night is a pretty decent sitcom; Charles, in particular, is an interesting actor with a weirdly understated bluntness, and his dialogue's nicely tailored to make good use of his manner. But only the fake Robert Altman shtick of director Thomas Schlamme's hyperbolic camera conceals how very conventional the whole business is. Sorkin thinks he's invented the wheel by adding poignant interludes—telling Friend that "while in any other art form mixing comedy and drama is three thousand years old, in the half-hour TV show it's unheard of."

Since The New Yorker recently printed Toni Morrison's explanation that Bill Clinton is really black (that's what got Monica hot: the whole Mandingo thing), maybe David Remnick is soliciting unconventional views. Even so, I have to ask: has Sorkin watched television since, oh, 1971? Those touchy-feely bits—which hardened TV writers call the "Moment of Shit"—are the bane of sitcoms, not their salvation. And Friend should know better, but if he wants to pretend he's rewriting Lillian Ross's Picture for readers as eager to believe the worst of Jamie Tarses's ABC the way Ross's were of Dore Schary's MGM, I won't argue. Except to say that one thing Ross's account of the mangling of John Huston's The Red Badge of Courage left out was that Huston was a schmuck to begin with. The movie probably wouldn't have been all that good anyway.

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