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HOWARD ROSENBERG / TELEVISION

Family Hour Fun Not Always Family-Friendly

September 24, 1997|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Subtract the new CBS newsmagazine "The Public Eye With Bryant Gumbel" and you have a comedy shootout from 8 to 10 p.m. Wednesdays on the Big Three networks, with 10 dueling sitcoms, four of them newcomers. An additional four returning comedies fill the WB network's slate during those same hours.

Three of the four new gunslingers--ABC's "Dharma & Greg" and NBC's "The Tony Danza Show" and "Built to Last"--premiere tonight, with NBC's "Working" scheduled at the office in two weeks.

As a footnote, each of tonight's rookies exemplifies the sharp darts of gratuitous sexual material prickling kid-accessible comedies that air at 8 or 8:30 p.m. (and at 7 and 7:30 p.m. in some time zones).

Although hardly consistent knee-slappers, each also has some attributes, the brightest in "Dharma & Greg" being likable, expressive Jenna Elfman as the free-spirited daughter of even freer-spirited hippies in this half-hour of battling stereotypes. Thomas Gibson plays Greg, the wealth-bred preppy assistant D.A. in her life.

Two decades after eyeing each other fleetingly as children on a subway, Dharma and Greg reunite nearly as briefly before marrying in Las Vegas on a whim, then greet us from under the sheets in the buff. (But not to worry, for your kids are asleep when this happens at 8:40 p.m., right?)

Only then do they discover how mismatched they are, he the son of stuffy, snooty, upper-crust WASPs (Susan Sullivan and Mitchell Ryan) who lead cloistered lives amid teacups and sterling, she the kid of a mom (Mimi Kennedy) who bounds around in the nude and a dad (Alan Rachins) who still believes "natural love was co-opted by the fascist state."

A lot of this is stock, cliche-ridden stuff, yet executed with enough moderately snappy humor to hold your interest. And when flat jokes do intervene, the leggy Elfman's winning manner and goofy grin make up for a lot.

Meanwhile, will the two sets of parents clash, and will Dharma and Greg overcome their cultural differences sufficiently to remain a couple? If you have to ask, this series is too deep for you.

*

Opposite "Dharma & Greg," which some industry watchers are anointing a sure hit, is the optimistically titled "Built to Last."

Although not generating many laughs, the eclectic family at the center of this easy-flowing, unmannered comedy projects warmth and cohesiveness that are very appealing without being overly sentimental.

"Built to Last" is said to be loosely based on the life of comic Royale Watkins, who plays himself here. The premiere centers at once on his plans for a computer career in California and on the fate of the family construction business headed by his ailing father, Russel (Paul Winfield).

Royale has a no-nonsense mother (Denise Dowse) and five siblings, who include his envious older architect brother (Geoffrey Owens) and smartass little brother (Jeremy Suarez). Nice family, but bounce the snotty little kid, fast!

The issues tonight are whether Royale will head west and whether the likably cranky Russel, a compassionate, community-minded entrepreneur with a social conscience, will sell the business for health reasons to a coldhearted, opportunistic, profits-obsessed competitor.

Naturally, Russel isn't selling and Royale isn't leaving (else there'd be no basis for the series). Instead, the Ivy League-educated Royale will help his father and pursue his destiny under a hard hat.

Its family solidarity theme positions "Built to Last" as a nice show for the younger set, minus a brief mention of a condom in conjunction with Royale's girlfriend. (But no sweat, for your kids are asleep when this happens at 8:45 p.m., right?)

*

Just how long "Built to Last" endures will depend in part on the sampling given its lead-in, "The Tony Danza Show," a pleasingly rambunctious half-hour that has its sitcom-veteran star playing a freelance sportswriter and single parent raising his daughters, ages 16 and 11, in New York, and suffering verbal abuse from his brassy female assistant.

Danza here is, well, Danza, spinning off the earthy, booming, predictable characters he played in "Taxi" and "Who's the Boss?" but also a pro who understands the genre and wisely chooses material that plays to his strengths as a comedic actor.

Tony DiMeo is an everyman who's easy to relate to.

Anyone ever intimidated by a computer will empathize with computer-illiterate Tony's own panic at the keyboard, leading to a very funny moment with his assistant, Carmen (Maria Canals), trying to talk him through it on the phone the way an airport controller would give step-by-step instructions to a non-pilot trying to land a plane in a snowstorm.

And anyone who has raised a teenager may experience deja vu when hearing this exchange that Tony initiates with his rebellious older daughter, Tina (Majandra Delfino):

"Where ya goin?"

"Out."

"Who ya goin' with?"

"Friends."

"And when ya gonna be back?"

"Whenever."

"See, this is good. We're havin' a conversation."

The edgier lines come from his neurotic younger daughter, Mickey (Ashley Malinger), who at one point asks her father for help in writing a poem: "What rhymes with cholera?"

Much of the episode is very nice, including Dean Stockwell as Tony's father and some of Tony's more tender moments of parenting.

Meanwhile, he's told by the female principal of a school threatening to expel Tina for playing hooky: "I caught my Barry in our shower having it off with a waitress." (Never to fear, for your kids are in bed when this happens at 8:15 p.m., right?)

What rhymes with irresponsibility?

* "Dharma & Greg" premieres at 8:30 tonight on ABC (Channel 7). The network has rated it TV-PG (may not be suitable for young children).

* "The Tony Danza Show" premieres at 8 tonight, followed at 8:30 by "Built to Last" on NBC (Channel 4). The network has rated both shows TV-G (suitable for all ages).

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