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HOWARD ROSENBERG / TELEVISION

NBC Banks on Comic-Led Sitcoms

THE NEW TV SEASON / One in a series

September 23, 1996|HOWARD ROSENBERG

NBC's "Mr. Rhodes" is yet another new series that genuflects to teachers who appear to have all the answers. And in line with this theme of familiarity, preceding "Mr. Rhodes" on NBC tonight is "The Jeff Foxworthy Show." New network (it was ABC last season), new night, new setting, new characters, but the same old Jeff.

"Mr. Rhodes" is the funniest of the new season's comic- playing- a- maverick- teacher- fighting- a- school- bureaucracy sitcoms.

Much funnier than WB's "The Steve Harvey Show" starring comedian Steve Harvey. Vastly funnier than WB's "Nick Freno: Licensed Teacher" starring comedian Mitch Mullany.

The transformed stand-up comic this time is Tom Rhodes, portraying a new teacher with the same name who shakes up a stuffy prep school with his shoulder-length hair, joking hipspeak and unconventional teaching methods--someone so good at inspiring resistant students in his English Lit class that he makes even George Eliot's "Silas Marner" exciting.

Some of "Mr. Rhodes" takes place in the teachers' lounge, where the newcomer encounters child-like math teacher Amanda Reeves (Jessica Stone), snide, cynical, pompous history teacher Ronald Felcher (Ron Glass) and neurotic guidance counselor Nikki Harkin (Farrah Forke), with whom he has immediate, um, chemistry.

His first day a virtual monologue, meanwhile, he entertains his class with impressions and one-liners whose success irritates his nemesis and foil, Felcher, who rats on him to headmaster Ray Heary (Stephen Tobolowsky).

Heary tells Rhodes: "I want you to look the way you look, dress the way you dress . . . and teach the way we teach, right?" Fat chance, for Rhodes, after trying to conform, ultimately concludes, "I gotta teach the way I gotta teach."

Much of that makes for breezy, feel-good whimsy, even though the new teacher's '70s jargon gets a little grating at times, the way-over-the-top Felcher is always grating, and "Mr. Rhodes" is a stale concept. Although not much of an actor, Rhodes the comic has a nice, amiable manner that fits his character and the clever writing that he sometimes gets. He tells one problem kid: "I bet you wouldn't mouth off like that if I were a tough Marine like Michelle Pfeiffer."

He's referring to that plucky teacher and savior of urban kids played by Pfeiffer in "Dangerous Minds," a movie that ABC has converted to a drama series with Annie Potts that also airs Mondays, starting next week.

Until then, class dismissed.

*

If uncompelling "Jeff Foxworthy" is dismissed by viewers leading off Monday nights for NBC, then school will be out on "Mr. Rhodes."

Foxworthy is the stand-up comic whose series was picked up by NBC after being dropped by ABC after last season. His new network has given him a different wife in Ann Cusack, deleted "redneck" from his vocabulary, booted him from Indiana and returned him and his family to his dinky Georgia hometown, where the premiere monitors their awkward adjustment to living in the odorous house built by his grandfather.

Now a supervisor at a trucking firm, the wry, good-natured character that Foxworthy again plays is likable enough. Especially so in a humorous segment that has him proudly showing off his favorite local restaurant and waiter, Fat Jerry, to his wife. In this sequence, the attempt at regional wit delivers.

Otherwise, there's little to commend in this relocation of the Foxworthys to America's land of good ol' boys, least of all Jeff's father, Big Jim (G.W. Bailey), a lifelong party boy whose womanizing escapades are too unfunny to merit the time granted them in the first two episodes.

The problem with the new "Jeff Foxworthy" is that, despite the cosmetology, it's essentially the old "Jeff Foxworthy" with the same protagonist, pleasant but uninspired.

* "The Jeff Foxworthy Show" airs at 8 tonight, followed by "Mr. Rhodes" at 8:30 p.m. on NBC (Channel 4).

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