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HOWARD ROSENBERG / TELEVISION

A 'Spin' as Smart as a Fox

THE NEW TV SEASON * One in a series

September 17, 1996|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Back to the past.

It's no wonder that industry sages expect hit-dom from ABC's new comedy "Spin City": swell placement between popular "Home Improvement" and "NYPD Blue," and Michael J. Fox being Michael J. Fox, again a maestro of comic timing while graduating to full adulthood from Alex Keaton, the character that made him famous on NBC's "Family Ties," one of the best sitcoms of the 1980s.

As a bonus, "Spin City" just happens to be very funny.

Infinitely more so than "Life's Work," the irritating ABC comedy arriving an hour earlier tonight. The new NBC comedy that "Life's Work" faces, "Something So Right," is a much better bet, itself securely nestled between witty hits "Mad About You" and "Frasier" in an evening that promises to be hotly contested by ABC and NBC.

"Life's Work" is about juggling two careers, "Something So Right" about juggling two families. "Spin City" finds Fox and Carla Gugino, who plays his girlfriend, juggling each other in bed.

Credit much of "Spin City's" initial funniness to the writing of co-creators Bill Lawrence and Gary David Goldberg, the latter of whom also gave us "Family Ties." So it's no accident that Mike Flaherty, the resourceful New York City deputy mayor played by Fox, is an Alex Keaton spinoff minus the conservative politics. Same attitude, same cockiness, same smart mouth, same rhythms. Although hardly a growth role for Fox, who has been making features with mixed success since "Family Ties," it's one that he wears so comfortably that the fusion of actor and character is seamless and a treat to watch.

Dual crises drive tonight's premiere. One is stalled contract talks with New York sanitation workers that lead indirectly to a verbal slur against gays by the mayor (Barry Bostwick), the other stalled talks between Mike and Ashley (Gugino) over the status of their romance.

The frenzy by Mike and the mayor's hysterical press secretary (Richard Kind) to limit political damage over the gay remark pumps noisy farce into an urban scenario grounded in reality: Many elected officials are merely the sums of their staffs, in this case an aloof mayor whose bright young deputy fills him like an empty stocking.

*

Of no interest to anyone in the series, though, is that Ashley, Mike's live-in lover and confidante, just happens to be a newspaper reporter whose beat is the mayor's office, a conflict for him greater than Dick Morris and the Hooker, and an epic breach of ethics by her that in real life would get her fired or at least reassigned.

Yet that benign fantasy is more palatable than "Life's Work," which sustains a cross-fire of snide wisecracks while so tightly encircling Lisa Hunter (Lisa Ann Walter) with grating supporting characters that only rarely can she break free from their abrasiveness.

Walter gives recent law school grad Lisa an appealing feistiness and delivers some snappy humor when she is overcome by emotion at dropping off her year-old son at a day-care center. But everyone else? Ugh! Prominent on this list is Lisa's insufferable husband, Kevin (Michael O'Keefe), a college basketball coach with whom she argues about child-care conflicts that arise from her decision to take a demanding job as an assistant district attorney.

Even less likable is Lisa's nasty rival (Andrew Lowery), a vastly overdrawn caricature who swaggers through a D.A.'s office so rife with misogyny that Lisa doesn't even merit a desk. And her strange new boss (Larry Miller) immediately assigns her an unwinnable case.

"Life Work's" itself may be unwinnable. It's not that women don't encounter such conditions in the workplace or that parenting crises can't result from two-career marriages, only that this series has not found sufficient characters who are amiable or witty enough to express these problems in ways that are rewarding.

"Something So Right," on the other hand, stars Jere Burns and Mel Harris as newlyweds awkwardly merging their families from previous marriages in a nice little comedy with potential.

Although the basic premise is antique, the refinements it gets here provide an edge, for "Something So Right" depicts an urbane if dysfunctional universe of the multi-married that bustles with moms, dads, step-moms and step-dads. "And Grandpa met this really nice black woman in rehab," says 11-year-old Sara (Emily Ann Lloyd).

"So," notes her thrice-married mom, Carly (Harris), "we're not the Waltons." Not even the Clintons.

Meanwhile, this hybrid family aspires to homogeneity in a crowded New York City flat where Carly's 14-year-old son, Will (Billy L. Sullivan), develops a crush on Nicole (Marne Patterson), 16-year-old daughter of her present husband, Tom (Burns), a high school English teacher who rules emphatically that Will "is not allowed to see my daughter naked."

The above may not be what critics of TV have in mind when advocating family values, but this untidy little group does come through with a lot of solidarity and, more important, some engaging chat between Will and Nicole and some clever one-liners that go mostly to Burns as the protective father.

Something not so right is the premiere's pat, somewhat syrupy conclusion following an attempt by Carly's second husband to coax Sarah from her mother. Thickening the schmaltz would kill this series creatively, but likely not shrink the fat future it seems assured of with the hit "Mad About You" as its lead-in.

* "Something So Right" premieres at 8:30 tonight on NBC (Channel 4). "Life's Work" also premieres at 8:30 tonight, on ABC (Channel 7). "Spin City" premieres at 9:30 tonight on ABC (Channel 7).

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