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High Hope for 'Hiller,' Less for 'Dellaventura'

THE NEW TV SEASON: One in a series

September 23, 1997|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Predicting TV's winners and losers is a tricky business. But We Who Know Everything are certain that Danny Aiello's slow, somber new CBS series about a supreme private eye probably will be history faster than you can say "Dellaventura."

"Dellaventura" looks wobbly compared with its 10 p.m. competition: the flashy "Dateline NBC" and the fabulous "NYPD Blue" on ABC. It also stacks up poorly against "The Practice," a legal series resuming tonight in the "NYPD Blue" time slot before taking up permanent residence on Saturday nights.

More worthy than "Dellaventura" is the evening's other newcomer, the ABC comedy "Hiller and Diller."

"Dellaventura" is no thriller.

It presents Aiello as a whispery, ever-confident New York cop-turned-gumshoe who directs ateam of cool operatives who have specialties, like the group from "Mission: Impossible." This is less film noir than fashion noir, with just about everyone, bad guys and good guys, swathed in basic black, including Dellaventura, who wears his dark shades even at night.

Tonight, he simultaneously helps a client sort out her husband's odd behavior and comes to the rescue of an old friend and judicial appointee victimized by a phony sex scandal perpetuated by a mug with mob connections. The former ends as farce, the latter never stops being one, with the jurist, for starters, illogically turning to Dellaventura for help.

"Dellaventura" is an old-fashioned series whose hero is good because he's good, tough because he's tough, fearless because he's fearless. You take it on faith. When called on the carpet by "the head of the family," does he worry about being sent to snooze with the fishes? Get serious. "I was getting exactly what I wanted," he says.

And are these mobsters a match for him? Well, suffice to say he ends the hour as cocky as he begins it. "If you need me, I'll be around," he tells the camera. Don't call us. . . .

The big question is whether "Hiller and Diller" can be this funny.

"Hiller and Diller" is no killer. Not yet, anyway, but it has that promise, given its strong co-stars, Kevin Nealon and Richard Lewis, and a premiere with enough edge and smartly written comedy to make you laugh at least in spots. Being snugly slotted between ABC hits "Home Improvement" and "NYPD Blue" won't hurt either, likely granting the series breathing time to reach its potential.

Nealon and Lewis play longtime best friends and sitcom writing partners Ted Hiller and Ned Diller. Nealon's Hiller is the solid partner--good marriage, good kids, good work ethic. Lewis' Diller is the neurotic, dysfunctional one (surprise), with two failed marriages, two lethal kids that he is rearing ineptly and a method of writing that is dependably undependable.

So much so that the episode's early minutes are spent on Diller being AWOL and Hiller wondering where he is. Highlighting the half-hour is an especially funny sequence that has Diller resorting to extreme deception to get his two very weird kids accepted into a private school where Hiller's wife (Jordan Baker) has had the clout to get them an interview.

The show is also notable for its occasional sneaky humor:

"Daddy, can you help me study later for American history?"

"OK, but not too much later, or there'll be more to study."

The upbeat Nealon and Lewis, whose comedy is defined by bleak pessimism, are very good together. And the amazingly talented, inevitably underused Eugene Levy pops in and out as as their overbearing producer boss.

On paper, the clashing opposites here are as formulaic as anything in television, but the cast and a zingy execution of that premise lift it above the ordinary. Just how far remains to be seen.

* "Hiller and Diller" premieres at 9:30 tonight on ABC (Channel 7). The network has rated it TV-G (suitable for all ages).

* "Dellaventura" premieres at 10 tonight on CBS (Channel 2). The network has rated it TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14).

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