Different Doldrums


Let this column put your mind at rest. It’s untrue that America’s favorite 300-pound tumor–not Linda Tripp, but the one whose removal provided the money shot in the debut of Fox’s Guinness World Records show–will star in its own spin-off. Word is Fox balked at the tumor’s list of perks–private hairdresser and dentist, dressing room in the form of a willing human body, etc. Besides, while the network wanted a sitcom (Here’s Wobbly!), the tumor held out for its own talk show. “And this one was benign,” sighed one Fox bigwig. “God knows what doing lunch with a malignant tumor would be like.” Like anyone who’d eaten with Rupert Murdoch couldn’t guess.

So Murdoch’s network will just have to be content with the boffo ratings for Guinness World Records itself. If, after watching that giant growth get wheeled out of the OR, your first thought was either “At least they can’t go downhill from here” or “It just doesn’t get any better than this,” guess again. The show does spotlight plenty of the nitwit derring-do that the Guinness book is famous for provoking–preferably airborne, for the potential splat effect. But that’s just filler for the medical abnormalities and other stomach-turners that bookend each episode. The cleverest touch is a format that creates a flattering distinction between home viewers and the goggling studio audience, with one host for them and another–Chris Collinsworth, whose career must have started when he stabbed a fellow department-store mannequin in the back–for us. Since they scarfed tickets, they must be more debased; all we did was click a remote.

Although undoubtedly swelled by the yahoo hipsters who dote on crud to vaunt their superiority to it, Guinness‘s core audience is the one that reads Weekly World News more loyally now that The Star‘s gone political. Aside from avoiding it with a shudder, I’ve never known what to make of this nightmarish kind of TV. Does it leave me feeling estranged from the only culture I’ve got? You betcha. But so does the consensus that Saving Private Ryan–a movie whose ethos Hitler wouldn’t disapprove of–is a masterpiece, and I know which one’s more worth getting morally indignant about. However vile it gets, junk that candidly panders to the worst in people is less treacherous than the noble-looking stuff, like Spielberg’s Wagner for Sgt. Fury fans, that pretends to appeal to the best.

Otherwise, though, this off-season– traditionally the year’s deadest airtime, with “It’s New to You” network promos unable to accept that we had our reasons for skipping their damn shows to begin with–is turning out surprisingly frisky. Premiering Sunday, Fox’s That ’70s Show crosses The Brady Bunch with Wayne’s World, in both cases more as invocations than evocations. Then again, what’s to evoke? As a relic, I marvel at the decade’s posthumous reinvention as a pure, joyously feckless, endlessly available pop construct. Even the Happy Days ’50s have to contend with the mushroom-cloud and Joe McCarthy ’50s, but the ’70s really are just about the fads.

As you may guess from the title, That ’70s Show doesn’t exactly transcend its gimmick. Characters, story lines, and even point of view come in second to pushing those theme-parked period buttons, with the straight-arrow hero (Topher Grace, whose name I first mistyped as “Gopher Phace”; interpret this as you will) given two stoner pals to make with the pot jokes. If a fig leaf of quaintness is what’s required to get teenage doping alluded to without censoriousness, I’m not about to complain; still, the best reason to catch That ’70s Show before it’s canceled is so you can say you were onto Laura Prepon early. Playing Gopher’s–er, Topher’s–best pal, she’s got more amused poise and presence than the scripts know what to do with. She also actually does remind me of the girls I went to high school with, another reason she’s slightly out of place here.

Already running on ABC are Maximum Bob and the Drew Carey­hosted Whose Line Is It Anyway? Carey’s version isn’t as fast or loopy as the original Brit improv series, and his attempts to join the fun are an embarrassment. But with nimble Ryan Stiles out front and Wayne Brady everywhere else, the regulars plucked from the parent show get up to some very funny stuff. I do miss Josie Lawrence, though: maybe her demented gift for making up Brecht/Weill from scratch got judged unexportable, but this all-male bunch could use some leavening.

As for Maximum Bob, exec producer (and debut-episode director) Barry Sonnenfeld is never as good as you want him to be. His idea of innovation follows well-trodden paths. What keeps his work likable anyway, and saves him again in this limited-run romp about a hard-nosed but flaky Florida judge, is that deep down he’s too nice to be hip. Plus he’s a sucker for good actors; from Beau Bridges’s snorting comic authority here, you’d never guess how many namby-pamby types Jeff’s big brother got stuck playing in his youth, and the supporting cast–including Sam Robards as a wry sheriff, and Liz Vassey (it’s about time Ava Gardner types made a comeback, no?) as Bob’s courtroom foil–is uniformly excellent.

But the show’s hand-me-down larkiness, via Northern Exposure and the Coen brothers, is a dumber cliché than the pieties it replaced–irony as a convention, not a response. I can’t stand Maximum Bob‘s obese, self-serious white-trash twins, lumbering laconically from disaster to disaster. Their presence helps you notice the quasi-class distinctions between the characters confined to eccentricity and those we’re allowed to appreciate as human beings, with Kiersten Warren as Bob’s wife on the cusp. Luckily, the affected satire (of what? Nothing that Sonnenfeld knows much about) seems to be fading, and the show that’s emerging instead isn’t just more engaging. It’s funnier, too.

But just when you’re thinking you never want to see another offbeat TV show, a pair of series recently slipped onto Showtime make good on the billing. Linc’s–producer Tim Reid’s reworking of Frank’s Place, the similarly brainy sitcom he once starred in–is set in a black-owned D.C. bar whose opinionated regulars argue about current events while acting out variations on them. It’s both a slightly over-determined corrective to sillier black sitcoms and a genuine symposium of sorts, demanding an extra concentration that isn’t always repaid by Reid’s bent for replacing obvious truisms with subtle ones. That said, the talk is frequently shrewd and lively, and Reid’s announced goal of refuting stereotypes does lead him to some vivid, mold-breaking characters–gruff Steven Williams as the bar’s black-Republican owner, natty Georg Sanford Brown as a minor-league Vernon Jordan. The unacknowledged romance between Linc and Pam Grier as a woman fed up with her philandering white husband is also middle-aged sexiness at its most appealing.

Linc’s is followed on Saturdays by Rude Awakening, whose sense of the zeitgeist seems to have overslept: wasn’t rehab mania’s heyday years ago? But this series about a former TV ingenue (Sherilyn Fenn, up for anything and amazingly vanity-free) to whom staying on the wagon amounts to another form of karaoke is attractively nonjudgmental; there’s no suggestion that sobriety improves your character, just your chances. I don’t like the way Rain Pryor’s character lets the show win points for including a lesbian while treating what lesbians do as screamingly funny by definition, especially when the participants are unattractive–a gambit Maximum Bob also resorts to, with a male couple. Yet the show’s affection for L.A.’s also-rans is as informed as it is offhand, and the badinage keeps taking unexpected, goofy tangents. One reason they sound unexpected is that, like Linc’s, the series dispenses with a laugh track, which suits me fine. These days, the shows that could use them are the network newscasts: wouldn’t you give anything to see Dan Rather’s flummoxed face as hyenalike cackling met his every utterance?

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