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The Season: No Rx to Curb Cable | HOWARD ROSENBERG

The Reviews: 'Cosby,' 'Pearl' in Solid Debuts

September 16, 1996|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Those noting the dearth of TV comedies about something other than children or people who are dating, to say nothing of children who are dating, should be pleased with CBS newcomers "Cosby" and "Pearl" just on paper.

The first, successfully reuniting Bill Cosby and Phylicia Rashad from "The Cosby Show," monitors the home-front escapades of a curmudgeonly 60-year-old who lost his airport job in a corporate downsizing. The second stars former "Cheers" barmaid Rhea Perlman as a feisty blue-collar widow beginning anew as a student at a hoity-toity Eastern university.

Both make promising debuts tonight.

Cosby's Hilton Lucas is clearly a man with too much time on his hands, much of it spent at home these days to the disgust of his wife, Ruth (Rashad). He's Andy Rooney with better material, showing up at the cleaners to make a federal case of the note he found on his pair of pants saying a stain was unremovable ("Now let me get this straight. You cleaned the clean part and left the stain. . . .").

Interwoven with rocking humor and affectionate bantering, the first three episodes lock onto the rhythms of Cosby and Rashad, who, after their eight seasons on NBC as the higher-scale Huxt-ables, resurface as the smoothies of prime-time's married set. They are grand together, as in cadence as two halves of the same person, he raising havoc, she raising a brow.

Actually, a trio of characters drives "Cosby." Hanging around Hilton and Ruth is that perpetual scene-stealer Madeline Kahn as Ruth's best friend, Pauline, whose mistaken assumption about a napping Hilton fires up a splendidly unruly bit near the end of the premiere that attests to the good writing and whopper cast of "Cosby."

Prominent regulars also include T'Keyah Crystal Keymah as the Lucases' adult daughter and Doug E. Doug as her boyfriend.

Just one thing. A CBS press release says that the Lucases have been married 32 years. That fits Cosby, who is about the age of his character. But it means that the much younger Ruth (if the World Almanac is correct about Rashad's age) was a 16-year-old bride. Now let me get this straight. . . .

Meanwhile, "Pearl" is "Educating Rita" meets "Paper Chase," with Perlman a blossoming scholar as Pearl Caraldo, a loading-dock manager who is the first in her family to attend a college whose name "doesn't have 'beauty' or 'clown' in it."

Pearl is a U.S. version of Julie Walters' working-class British collegian in "Educating Rita," right down to the frizzed hair, miniskirts and lust for learning. But the nemesis she encounters, Malcolm McDowell's sharply drawn Professor Pynchon, is initially more like John Houseman's tyrannical Kingsfield in "Paper Chase" than the caring drunk, played by Michael Caine, who tutored Rita.

Despite showcasing the sadistic, insufferably pedantic, self-adoring Pynchon ("Let me tell you about my favorite subject: me!"), "Pearl" is a comedy with heart, its heroic protagonist well played by Perlman as both vulnerable and a street fighter. Both qualities surface in her confrontation with Pynchon when he humiliates her in his humanities class.

Even though the situation is stock--bank on each educating the other and Pearl ultimately holding her own if not prevailing with her honesty and common-sense wisdom--Perlman and McDowell have the skills to bring this off.

In fact, their opening clash is the amusing highlight of Episode 1, succeeding much more than time at home with Pearl, her palooka of a son (Dash Mihok), a 20-year-old single parent seeing his mother only as a baby-sitter, and Pearl's sweet but loopy sister-in-law (Carol Kane).

Pynchon informs his students that he bases 10% of their grade on "how much I like your face." So far, Pearl's is easy to like.

* "Cosby" and "Pearl" premiere tonight at 8 and 8:30, respectively, on CBS (Channel 2).

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