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HOWARD ROSENBERG / TELEVISION

Sunday Night Takes a Devilishly Fun Turn

September 05, 1997|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Angels they're not. But the WB Network is touching Sunday nights with a pair of highly promising comedies in "The Tom Show" and "Alright Already." Both far surpass "Jenny," the new NBC sitcom coming to Sunday nights on Sept. 28.

In fact, the pilot episode of "Alright Already" is hands-down, flat-out--take it to the bank--the funniest new half-hour comedy of the 1997-98 season.

The bad news is that the chin-stroking wits at WB apparently don't agree. After initially listing it as the premiere, they've bumped it back to Sept. 28, replacing it with a broader, less sophisticated episode of "Alright Already" that has some good moments, but not nearly as many as the oft-hilarious pilot. More about "Alright Already" shortly.

Its lead-in, "The Tom Show," affirms Tom Arnold as someone with an instinctive, seemingly effortless way with comedic acting, again disproving those forecasts that he would plummet and crash when no longer seamed to Roseanne's coattails. The man is funny. That and surges of strong writing in the opening episode make "The Tom Show," which Arnold created with J.J. Wall, a comedy to watch.

Arnold is Tom Amross, trying to recoup his life and TV career in St. Paul, Minn., with his two daughters (Lisa Wilhoit and Mika Boorem) after a nasty, financially ruinous divorce from his wife, Maggie (Shannon Tweed), whose top-rated daytime talk show he had produced in Los Angeles before their split.

He's returned to KOGD-TV in St. Paul to produce "Breakfast With Charlie," a local show whose creaky host of 43 years, Charlie Dickerson (Ed McMahon), gave Tom his start. His ratings declining, Charlie hopes now to "appeal to the kids, the under-50 crowd." In other words, he tells Tom, "I want you to do the same thing for me that you did for Maggie."

Tom: "Well, I can't pay for all of your plastic surgery. I'm a little broke."

Very nice. The line wouldn't work, though, without Arnold's deft timing.

Tom's solution to Charlie's problems is to hire a young, neurotic co-host, Florence Madison (Shawnee Smith), who turns out to be Charlie's antithesis in all ways (she's been hosting a late-night college show). Her attitudes annoy Charlie, whose idea of putting on a good show is to sit before the camera and tell viewers what's in the newspaper: "Hey, look at this. The muskies are really biting up there in White Bear Lake."

Trouble? Nah, for this is TV. Once these two argue publicly on the air, a team for the ages is born.

Most of the supporting cast perform well behind Arnold. No hi-ohs, though, for McMahon, the show's only mackerel. Nor is it credible that Florence would be rushed onto the air with Charlie without rehearsal or at least minimal preparation. Or likely that "The Tom Show" will ever approach the dark effervescence and bracing edginess of NBC's late, very, very great "Buffalo Bill," which soared creatively but failed commercially while spoofing the milieu of a local TV talk show.

Yet "The Tom Show" opens with enough acerbic humor to be distinctive and enough nifty writing to keep you amused.

*

"Alright Already" has the potential to achieve much more than that. Unclear, though, is which preview episode sent out by WB is a true representative of the series.

Its biggest attribute is its talented and funny star, creator and co-executive producer, Carol Leifer, a former writer and supervising producer on HBO's "The Larry Sanders Show" and, before that, a producer and writer for NBC's "Seinfeld."

The "F" word (fabulous) applies to those series and to some of "Alright Already," which finds Leifer playing a single woman with occasional glints of "Seinfeld's" Elaine, for whom, it's been frequently said, Leifer was the model.

The setting here is South Beach, Fla., where optometrist Carol Lerner (Leifer) coexists with her friend Renee (Amy Yasbeck), sister (Stacy Galina), brother (Maury Sterling) and parents (Mitzi McCall and Jerry Adler).

Just a howl in the newly scheduled premiere is Carol's ruse to stop her neighbors from playing loud music at night. She convinces them she has a newborn child, and her attempts to keep the fantasy alive are inspired. Unfortunately, Renee and her boyfriend get equal time in a spasmodic hospital-morphine sequence thick enough to clog your veins, and not much funnier is another bit of business with Carol's parents making a shambles of going to the movies.

When Leifer isn't on the screen, in fact, "Alright Already" lags dramatically, unlike "Seinfeld" and "The Larry Sanders Show," which don't require the continuous presence of stars Jerry Seinfeld and Garry Shandling, respectively, to shine.

Yet watch out for the Sept. 28 pilot episode that was originally to be the premiere, when Carol observes that her younger sister, by living with their parents in an upper-middle-class retirement community, is becoming their parents. It has you laughing faster than you can say mah-jongg.

In that same episode, meanwhile, Carol goes shopping at Bulk World, where she bumps into a guy she's dating and wants to impress. She's mortified when her month's supply of toilet tissue spills from its packaging onto the pavement in front of him.

Not to worry, Renee later assures her. "You and Robert have serious sexual chemistry all the toilet paper in the world can't wipe away."

Is this crackling episode, written by Leifer, the real "Alright Already"? Or is it the one viewers get Sunday? Stay tuned.

* "The Tom Show" premieres at 9 p.m. Sunday, followed at 9:30 p.m. by "Alright Already" on WB (Channel 5). The network has rated both programs TV-PG (may not be appropriate for young children).

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