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April 03, 1988|Tom Shales | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Once upon a time, comedies were comedic and dramas were dramatic. Life was simpler then. Now we are living in more complex times; or simply more ambivalent times.

Hence the big thing on television this season is the "dramedy," which is not a kind of camel, but rather a TV series that combines the humorous and the serious. Crossbreeding comic and dramatic elements supposedly produces a subtler, more sophisticated offspring--although the view of NBC Entertainment president Brandon Tartikoff is that a dramedy is just a comedy without enough laughs in it.

In some cases dramedizing works, and beautifully. The most conspicuous fresh example is "The Wonder Years," ABC's new Tuesday night smash about a 12-year-old boy growing up in a 1968 suburb. It's funny and tender and wry. It could be the most lovable new show of the year.

The first episode was mainly comedic, but it ended with news that a neighborhood boy had died in Vietnam. The second episode opened with the young man's funeral. For our liter-sized hero Kevin (Fred Savage), it was the moment he realized somebody young, who wasn't even sick, could die.

But even as he pondered that, he couldn't resist making eyes at the dead soldier's angelic little sister Winnie (Danica McKellar), Kevin's first official throb.

Kevin learned about sex the way many boys do--from the boastings and braggings of an oafish older brother. A scene set in a hygiene class conducted by the gym teacher was painfully funny. Later, Kevin and his nerdy friend Paul (Josh Saviano) raided a bookstore for a copy of "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask)."

Kevin's mom was shocked to find the book in Kevin's room. That's because she thought it was her copy, stolen from a dresser drawer.

"Wonder Years" borrows from many sources. The narration, by the present-day, grown-up Kevin (played by the unseen Daniel Stern), sounds much like the Richard Dreyfuss narration of "Stand by Me." The whole idea of memorializing a boy's early adolescence was probably inspired by that hugely successful film.

But no program ever arrives on television in a state of pristine virginal originality. "Wonder Years," whatever its antecedents, shows a virtuoso ability to pluck responsive chords. Indeed, it clangs responsive gongs.

The program is the creation of husband-wife writing and producing team Carol Black and Neal Marlens. They are suddenly the hottest new duo in Television Town.

But "dramedy" is not necessarily a badge of honor. "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd," a moody NBC series about a confused woman living in Manhattan, has returned for another tour of duty on the network and it doesn't seem any more believable or intriguing than it did during a previous run.

Molly, single and harried, is played by Blair Brown, an actress so light-headed and vacant she really should be hosting a daytime talk show on cable. She blinks and twinkles and twitters but no sparks result.

The program was created and is produced by men--specifically, Jay Tarses, the writer, and Bob Brush, the producer. Both men abandoned another, superior drama-comedy series, ABC's "The 'Slap' Maxwell Story," in order to revive middling Molly. Now ABC has put the deteriorated "Slap" on hiatus; the three episodes not yet aired will probably show up in May.

Tarses sends Molly from misadventure to misadventure, and affair to affair, and in the course of this there are acerbic asides about the state of modern mating. But Molly remains a mannequin, one various characters dress up to suit themselves.

One good thing about "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd" is that you never know what's going to happen next. The bad thing is you may not care what's going to happen next.

Like most good dramedies, "Molly" has no laugh track. But this may be because it would be hard to get even a track to laugh . . . whereas ABC's new dramedy entry is full of bright lines and warm charm--what might be called the sense of "Wonder." And great entertainment.

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