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TV REVIEWS : 'Bridge' Connects; 'Step by Step' Stumbles

September 20, 1991|HOWARD ROSENBERG | TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

If you think that one television series looks pretty much like another, take a look at the two new comedy contenders battling each other for survival on Fridays.

Rich, atmospheric "Brooklyn Bridge" premieres in bloated hour form at 8 tonight on CBS (Channels 2 and 8). Starting next week, it will be on at 8:30, opposite ABC's "Step by Step," which stumbles across the screen at 8:30 tonight (Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42).

Both series look to the past. Brooklyn, circa 1956, inspired "Brooklyn Bridge," while "The Brady Bunch," 1969-1974, was the role model for "Step by Step."

Beyond their contrasting approaches to nostalgia, the two are also separated by about 100 IQ points, with "Brooklyn Bridge" having the potential to be awfully good and "Step by Step" being plain awful.

Not that "Brooklyn Bridge" is home free just because it sweetly and wittily echoes a time when gay still meant merry and Ebbets Field was home to the Dodgers instead of memories.

Executive producer Gary David Goldberg will have only himself to blame if the series that he designed as an homage to his own youth gets labeled the Jewish "Wonder Years." Like that ABC series, "Brooklyn Bridge" is essentially a funny/serious coming-of-age comedy, except that 14-year-old Alan Silver (Danny Gerard) spends almost as much time being babied and pestered in the apartment of his old-fashioned grandparents, Sophie and Jules Berger (delightfully played by Marion Ross and Louis Sorich), as with his pals and working-class parents.

You'd think that Goldberg would go out of his way to soften the similarities and accentuate the ethnic differences in the two series. Yet Gerard, the young actor he chose to play Alan, is very close to being a physical replica of his "Wonder Years" counterpart, Fred Savage, especially with that copycat haircut. And while appealing in the role, he at times plays Alan as if his preparation consisted of watching Savage tapes.

Just like Kevin of "Wonder Years," moreover, Alan has a taller girlfriend that he reveres, a geeky buddy and, in this pumped-up first episode, a moral dilemma that he resolves by, well, doing what's right. Goldberg may be letting idealism infringe on Alan here in a way that detracts from reality. Moreover, Alan's sophisticated sense of humor seems terribly refined for his age.

In many other ways, however, "Brooklyn Bridge" rings acutely true, from the production's natural lighting to the charming interplay among its characters. If it's not a debate over whether Gil Hodges is Jewish, then it's one of Alan's guileless friends trying to impress a girl by reciting the Dodgers' schedule, or the Yiddish-flavored Sophie and another of Alan's friends, Nicholas, having separate conversations about the subject of getting his homework done by his older girlfriend.

Sophie: "Is that right?"

Nicholas: "I hope so. I think she checks it before she gives it back to me."

Sophie: "No, I mean is it right for her to do your homework?"

Nicholas: "Oh, yeah. See, she's had these classes before, so it's easy for her."

Goldberg has had this life before, apparently, and in transferring a version of it to the small screen, he merges humor and poignancy in creative ways that give TV comedy an improved name. Even if "Wonder Years" did do it first.

The cretin comedy "Step by Step" merges two families. Widowed Carol Foster (Suzanne Somers), who has two wise-cracking daughters and a wise-cracking son, and divorced Frank Lambert (Patrick Duffy), who has two wise-cracking sons and a wise-cracking daughter, have a whirlwind, wise-cracking courtship and marriage. But wait!

Carol: "We've gotten married, and our kids haven't even met."

Frank: "So, we'll introduce 'em."

Yes, of course. Why hadn't they thought of it before? Introduce 'em!

"Step by Step" conveys just that level of wit and intelligence, as Carol and Frank try to hide their marriage from their families, who naturally despise each other, but they are forced to reveal all after their kids have a food fight at a get-acquainted meal.

Frank and his family move into Carol's house, where total strangers will now share rooms. But does Frank worry? "I know this is a stressful time for you," he tells Carol. For her? What about the kids?

Somers and Duffy both come off poorly here, but Lunt and Fontanne couldn't flourish in such trivializing, ninny roles.

Inevitably, the script summons up the Serious Moment, as Carol does some world-class bonding with Frank's daughter, Al, after rushing the girl to the hospital with appendicitis. Cut to the waiting room.

Frank, remorsefully: "I could have sent Al to school, and her appendix might have burst."

One of Carol's daughters: "I wish this zit would burst."

I wish this series would burst.

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