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TV REVIEWS : 'Grace' and 'Joe': Unequal Premieres

September 29, 1993|HOWARD ROSENBERG | TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

"Roseanne" resonates. Just as the nation's economic woes continue to spread, so do prime-time's comedies of hard-knocks, creating unlikely partners in pathos.

Arriving tonight on ABC (Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42) are the appealing "Grace Under Fire" and the hum-drum "Joe's Life," each with a protagonist in the fiscal doldrums.

From the "Roseanne" production team of Carsey-Werner comes yet another blue-collar heroine in "Grace Under Fire" (at 9:30 p.m.). Grace Kelly (Brett Butler) has split from her redneck husband and taken an oil refinery job that enables her to live modestly with her three children.

Her hard-hat colleagues include a bunch of male cretins and another female (the two women are the plant's "quota babes"), a hard-line feminist who tonight resents being called a "girl" by one of the guys.

The comedic Grace disagrees: "Hey, I'm 35 years old. I've got three kids. I can hide a can of cat food under each breast. If Pops thinks I look like a girl, it makes me happy."

Yet another stand-up comic heading her own series, Butler is witty and TV-friendly in a well-written (by Chuck Lorre), tailor-made role as a woman whose instinctively humorous side is shaded by the somber realities of single parenthood in the harsh '90s. The comedy evolves primarily from her relationships with her co-workers and her new boyfriend (Dave Thomas), a poor sod rebounding from a marriage in which his ex-wife shopped him into oblivion.

But Grace has texture as well as a funny mouth, and there are some intriguing moments here between Mom and her 8-year-old son (Noah Segan) concerning his memories of his father slapping her around.

In a little bonus, "Grace Under Fire" opens with TV's best theme, Aretha Franklin singing "Lady Madonna." It's all part of a nice start for this series, which is earthy fun.

*

"Joe's Life" (at 8:30 p.m.) is earthy, too, but with very little of the fun.

The Cold War is over. So laid off from his management job at an aircraft company, Joe Gennaro (Peter Onorati) now works part time nights at his brother's restaurant, but spends most of his time at home taking care of the kids while his wife, Sandy (Mary Page Keller), works as a temp so the family can make ends meet.

The best things about "Joe's Life" are its cast and its grounding in the realities of difficult times, as Joe takes out his frustrations on his family, having a snit when his youngest son, Scott (Spencer Klein), wears his hair in a rat-tail. He also resents Scott's admiration for his music teacher.

It's a watchable half hour. Yet unfortunately, little of this, including bickering between Joe and Sandy, translates into laughter. And "Joe's Life" is supposed to be a comedy, not a social treatise.

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