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TV REVIEWS : Three New Sitcoms, but Only One Is Prime : 'Bakersfield, P.D.' makes its witty premiere on Fox. ABC's 'Phenom' and NBC's 'Saved by the Bell' sequel don't fare as well.

THE NEW SEASON. One of a series.

September 14, 1993|HOWARD ROSENBERG | TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

Three new comedies hit prime time tonight.

The Odd Trio are Fox's "Bakersfield, P.D.," a police spoof that's about as witty as television gets; ABC's unphenomenal "Phenom," and NBC's beyond-redeeming "Saved by the Bell: The College Years."

"Bakerfield, P.D." (at 8:30 p.m. on Channels 11 and 6) injects breezy, wonderful fun into formulaic TV, giving buddy-cop cliches a refreshing dose of whimsy and satire. Written by executive producer Larry Levin and directed by Dean Parisot, the premiere is just very, very funny.

Fresh to Bakersfield from the Washington police department, urbanized African-American Paul Gigante (Giancarlo Esposito) is paired with good-ol'-whitebread boy Wade Preston (Ron Eldard) in a police department populated by eccentrics. The boss is fuzzy Capt. Stiles (Jack Hallett), who is incapable of making decisions. The Radar-like Sgt. Hampton (Brian Doyle-Murray) diplomatically makes them for him.

Surrounded in his new job by whites who are astonished that he isn't Shaft, the cultured Gigante is himself taken aback by his new partner, the guileless but goofy Preston, who incessantly regurgitates TV-cop trivia, from "The Mod Squad" to "Hawaii Five-0." How will these two ever get along? Hilariously, if the premiere is any measure.

From start to finish, "Bakersfield, P.D." pushes one comedic button after another, snapping off sly throwaway lines with a straight face and using humor to slice in commentary about contemporary culture.

The real Bakersfield will need to have thick skin. In the series, for example, the city's classical-music radio station blares a symphonic treatment of cornponey "Achy, Breaky Heart." And when Gigante first drives into town and asks an elderly white couple for directions, the terrified geriatrics roll up their car window without replying.

Although generally more subtle than "The Naked Gun" theatrical movies, "Bakersfield, P.D." does feature what is surely TV's first police chase on roller-blades.

Clever writing, clever cast, clever start. As Preston says to Gigante, "Let's go, Dano."

The premiere of "Phenom" (also at 8:30 p.m., on Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42) was written by Dick Blasucci, Marc Flanagan and Sam Simon ("The Simpsons") and directed by Ed. Weinberger ("Taxi"). Yet somehow it's still mediocre at best, although this plum time slot, between "Full House" and "Roseanne," is an enormous gift from ABC.

The "phenom" is budding 15-year-old tennis star Angela Doolan (Angela Goethals), who lives in a suburban condo with her single mother, Diane (Judith Light), younger sister (Ashley Johnson) and dysfunctional older brother (Todd Louiso). Into this family mix comes loud, bossy, hard-selling Lou Del La Rosa (William Devane).

Angela is caught in a vice between her tennis career goals and her desire to be a normal teen-ager. When she finally rejects Del La Rosa's offer of a full-time tennis scholarship, which would require her to move to his La Jolla training facility, a compromise is reached. She'll continue to live at home but will train with Del La Rosa on weekends.

Goethals does nicely in a premiere that offers occasional glimmers of memorable dialogue. Diane to Angela: "I'm going to do something that goes against every instinct I have as a mother. I'm going to respect your opinion."

For the most part, though, "The Phenom" is oppressive. In the role of the obnoxiously despotic Del La Rosa, a very, very little of Devane goes a very, very long way. It's teeth-gnashing time when he's on the screen. In addition, this first episode is laden with such stock sitcom components as the imposed maudlin moment--the scripted lump in the throat when mother and daughter have a rapprochement. Unfortunately, very few of these components yield humor.

"Hello, ladies. Did you miss me?"

"As much as I miss my acne."

There you have it, a snippet from NBC's new zitcom, "Saved by the Bell: The College Years." It tolls at 8 p.m. on Channels 4, 36 and 39.

It's difficult to imagine even its pre-pubescent target audience liking this infantile prime-time successor to the Saturday morning series, "Saved by the Bell."

The guys from Bayside High School--Screech (Dustin Diamond), A.C. (Mario Lopez), Zack (Mark-Paul Gosselaar)--are now college freshmen. So is Kelly (Tiffani-Amber Thiessen). And former Los Angeles Raiders defensive tackle Bob Golic is the resident adviser at their co-ed dorm. His assignment: strut, flex and scowl.

The premiere finds nerdy Screech and hunks Zack and A.C. sharing not only a dorm room but also mucho misadventures. The inanity is nonstop, reaching an apex when a birthday party for Leslie (Anne Tremko) backfires, putting Zack on the defensive.

If your taste runs to simpleton humor and simpleton characters, this is the series for you.

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