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A Bit of Cheer From 'Veronica,' 'Union Square'

HOWARD ROSENBERG / Television

THE NEW TV SEASON * One in a series

September 25, 1997|HOWARD ROSENBERG | TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

Meanwhile, back at Ft. Knox. . . .

NBC, which traditionally mints hits on Thursday nights, welcomes two new comedies to that golden arena tonight, with a cast of relative unknowns inhabiting the urban diner of edgy "Union Square" and Kirstie Alley ("Cheers") playing another insecure, self-effacing character as the Queen Mum of lingerie in the mildly amusing "Veronica's Closet."

Based on their premieres, "Union Square" deserves the prized post-"Seinfeld" time slot at 9:30 that NBC granted "Veronica's Closet." Yet following the popular "Friends" at 8:30 is nothing to dismiss lightly: It's a high-profile position but frees "Union Square" of the burden of holding the epic audience of "Seinfeld," which ranked behind only "ER" in last season's Nielsens.

The energetic "Union Square" setting is a small, neighborhood-style restaurant in New York City where food aromas mingle with the pungent neuroses and wisecracks of the employees and patrons. Most memorable initially are a freshly arrived actress from San Antonio (Constance Marie), a sharp-tongued, aggressive real estate agent (Harriet Sansom Harris), the diner's dreadlocked owner (Jeffrey Anderson-Gunter) and a hunky short-order cook (Jim Pirri), who at one point tonight feeds meat to a dog while a homeless man watches.

"Sure, feed the dog," the man says. "Forget about your own species."

"It's raw. It'll make you sick."

"That's what they said about the raccoon."

The cast works, the characters are likable and the writing is clever in spots, even though that includes a couple of sexual anatomy jokes, the likes of which are becoming far too obligatory in comedies airing at 8 and 8:30 p.m.

*

At least "Veronica's Closet" is the best of the comedies to have premiered behind "Seinfeld" in recent years, a group that now forms NBC's comedy foursome on Monday nights ("Caroline in the City," "Suddenly Susan," "The Naked Truth" and "Fired Up").

And Alley has an affinity for sitcoms. Her character here, Veronica "Ronnie" Chase, is a romance-advice book maven and operator of a major lingerie company where there's a plan afoot to replace her as catalog cover girl because she's not quite the woman she was.

She's constantly in need of propping up, the main proppers being her father/chauffeur (Robert Prosky), top executive (Kathy Najimy), assistant (Wallace Langham), publicist (Dan Cortese) and wimpy marketing manager (Daryl "Chill" Mitchell), easily the episode's funniest character after Ronnie.

Alley, with her good timing, delivers some nice moments, especially when rejecting a beautiful model to stand in for her on the cover.

"Forget her."

"Why? She's gorgeous."

"Yes, and it's time somebody rejected her."

That is classic Alley. Yet another major plot line, about Ronnie being too weak to throw out her philandering husband, yields nothing, and too much of "Veronica's Closet" is bare.

* "Union Square" premieres at 8:30 tonight and "Veronica's Closet" at 9:30 on NBC (Channel 4). The network has rated both TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).

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