"The John Larroquette Show" has the potential to be prime time's next great comedy series, one whose bluesy humor springs like a gusher from the pathos of contemporary urban life. It arrives at 9:30 tonight on NBC (Channels 4, 36 and 39), before moving to its regular 9 p.m. Tuesday slot.
As a newly recovering alcoholic trying to repair himself as night manager at a wreck of a bus depot in a dismal section of St. Louis, the gifted Larroquette puts his smarmy "Night Court" attorney Dan Fielding far behind him, this time artfully playing a layered character with transcendent possibilities.
Drinking, says John Hemingway, "is the only thing in my life I've ever been good at." And drinking, in addition to street people and other colorful characters, is what surrounds him in this stressful purgatory that constantly tempts him to fall off the wagon. In the second episode, singer David Crosby shows up as someone who chairs Alcoholics Anonymous meetings inside the bus terminal's bar.
Not that this is even close to being a one-note, anti-boozer series, though, as the premiere finds Hemingway seeking to avoid the fate of his predecessor in this crime-ridden neighborhood. "He died in his sleep," says the bus depot's brazen ticket seller, Mahalia (Liz Torres). "Never even felt the bullet."
The Larroquette show is probably closest to the late, great "Taxi" in the way it integrates interestingly written characters into soulful comedy and spins them around a somewhat battered protagonist. Mahalia is joined on the scene, for example, by Carly (Gigi Rice), a shrewd hooker who dispenses one-liners along with sex. And besides the bottle and surrounding decay, it's Dexter, the African-American snack bar manager (Daryl "Chill" Mitchell) who is Hemingway's looming antagonist, angrily insisting that he was passed over for the night manager's job because of his race.
The humor resonating from this racial hostility sometimes comes with a message. When the bus depot is hit by an armed robber, the white Hemingway pragmatically refers the gunman to the black Dexter. "You got a better chance of getting off if you shoot him."
At times, the characters seem too tightly packed into inescapable ethnic cubicles, and the comedy they produce is occasionally, but not consistently, punchy or knockdown funny. Yet "The John Larroquette Show" glows with promise, projecting a star-like aura that you could follow for a long distance.