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HOWARD ROSENBERG / TELEVISION

Like, How About Getting a Clue

THE NEW TV SEASON * One in a series

September 20, 1996|HOWARD ROSENBERG

New series keep coming, with tonight bringing CBS' "Mr. & Mrs. Smith," a drama exactly like "Moonlighting," minus the wit, fun and smarts. Well, you can't have everything.

And airing opposite it is ABC's disappointingly flat "Clueless."

"Clueless" is. At least it is when compared with the funny and endearing theatrical film of the same title that director-screenwriter Amy Heckerling loosely based on Jane Austen's "Emma."

On paper, the same features predominate and the new ABC comedy looks fine, with Rachel Blanchard succeeding Alicia Silverstone in the lead role.

Cher (Blanchard) is again the pampered teenager who lives in "the nice part of Beverly Hills" with her dad (Michael Lerner), a "totally prominent attorney" she thinks of herself as caring for. She again is a sincere, bighearted meddler and manipulator, dispensing good cheer and advice that she envisions enriching those around her. She again is a profusion of designer pink whose favorite pastimes, in addition to good works, are malls, Rodeo Drive and maintaining her wardrobe and manicure.

Her pseudo-idealistic step-brother, Josh (David Lascher), is again at her side. As is her best pal and social trivia partner, Dionne (Stacey Dash), whose boyfriend, Murray (Donald Adeosun Faison), again wears a mantle of street smarts. Amber (Elisa Donovan) is again Cher's rival. Former New Yorker Tai (Heather Gottlieb) is again her make-over project with a romance problem. Miss Geist (Twink Caplan) and Mr. Hall (Wallace Shawn) again are teaching mates at Cher's swanky high school, where students again gab to one another on their cellular phones.

Dash, Faison, Donovan, Shawn and Caplan (also a co-executive producer) are all holdovers from the movie. And Heckerling herself is executive producer of the series and also director and co-writer (with co-executive producer Pamela Pettler) of the premiere.

Most of which comes curiously to naught tonight, ABC's "Clueless" being so way unfunny and charmless.

A big reason is that Blanchard hasn't nearly the glow or acting skill of Silverstone, whose spark--that aura of huggable sweet innocence shining through the superficiality--isn't transferred to the small screen. Blanchard blends with her pastels instead of standing out.

Nor is there much cleverness or discernible satire in an opening script that finds Cher filling in for the school paper's advice columnist (who is off getting a nose job). Her well-intentioned counsel inevitably goes awry.

Paired in ABC's lineup with the new "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch," which premieres next week, "Clueless" seems tailored mainly to teen girls whom the network apparently expects to be sitting in front of their TV sets Friday nights. "Clueless" the movie was for everyone.

*

"Mr. & Mrs. Smith" tries to be way cool itself but settles for stylish vacuity. It presents Scott Bakula ("Quantum Leap") and Maria Bello as two competing agents en route to a combative partnership in the murky world of corporate espionage, where they go by code names cited in the series title.

How murky? Well, it's hard telling much tonight from this premiere in search of a story. It seems that Bakula and Bello, who initially are working for different employers, are trying to locate someone named Stanley Duke. Along the way, they compete, they schmooze, they dance, they run, they chase, they dodge bullets, they wrestle, they flirt, they periodically remain stationary long enough for their close-ups.

And 50 minutes through the hour you're still wondering what this is all about.

Not much, it turns out, except lots of running around, gratuitous violence perpetuated by villainous oil interests, a fair amount of sexual tension and tight shots of that dish, Bello, that would warm even the Abominable Snowman.

It's not enough. She and Bakula (who is also an executive producer here) are capable performers who deserve better. As do viewers.

* "Clueless" premieres at 9 tonight on ABC (Channel 7). "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" also premieres at 9 on CBS (Channel 2).

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