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HOWARD ROSENBERG / Television

Three UPN Comedies Are Off to Shaky Start

October 05, 1998|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Premiering tonight are three UPN comedies, including the previously reviewed "The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer," a source of public protests by a small group of African Americans who see slavery being trivialized by its highly farcical plot line about a black butler-advisor serving in the White House of a sex-crazed Abraham Lincoln.

Uh . . . sure.

Buckling under this pressure, UPN substituted another episode for the controversial pilot that was originally to air tonight, a clear wobble that could be read as acknowledging that the critics are right about the show's references to the Civil War and slavery in a comedic setting being indefensible.

Although that is highly debatable, "Desmond Pfeiffer's" low-brow execution and failure as a comedy are not.

There is no advance controversy about "Guys Like Us" and "DiResta," the pair of new comedies preceding "Desmond." Unfortunately, there's also little about them that's funny.

That's especially so for "Guys Like Us," a truly banal series that, in its ownquiet, cutesy way, is vastly more troubling than "Desmond." That's because its tiny protagonist, age 6, ends up being a procurer, in effect, for his male housemates who are in their 20s. He just doesn't do it for money.

Taking a 14-month engineering job in another country, the widower dad of little Maestro (Maestro Harrell) pawns the kid off on his adult son, Jared (Bumper Robinson), who shares a bachelor pad in Cleveland with Sean (Chris Hardwick), an infantile doofus of a musician and swinger who fears having a first-grader around will cramp his sex life.

Jared: "So close the door."

As it turns out, Maestro initiates steps to improve both men's sex lives.

What follows, in addition to Sean feeding chips, leftover pizza and whipped cream to Maestro for breakfast, is Jared's visit to the boy's classroom, where a little girl views Jared as a sexy hunk (another example of comedy writers giving children unnaturally savvy thoughts and dialogue). Meanwhile, the teacher turns out to be a real looker, something that doesn't go unnoticed by Maestro.

It won't blow the ending to reveal that the resourceful Maestro--he's just 6, remember--finds ways to romantically unite Jared with the teacher and Sean with a neighbor. If this works out, who needs first grade?

What can you say? Maybe this happens in Cleveland.

"DiResta" is more likable because the leads are appealing together. It's the writers who let them down in the premiere.

The series is said to be based on stand-up comic John DiResta's earlier life as a New York transit cop. That's what he plays here, all beefy and hard-edged on the surface, while Leila Kenzle is his feisty wife, Kate. They're a nice match.

Despite Kate's objections, John (he uses his own name here) tonight gets himself reassigned to the night shift to earn $3,000 to pay tuition at the spiffy private kindergarten that his wife wants their daughter, Anna, to attend. Naturally, problems ensue. The conflict seems contrived, though, given that Kate could earn the $3,000 working one day a week at a part-time job.

The series gives equal time to John's cronies on the job, one of whom is his sister-in-law, and to their toddler son, Dakota, whose gender confusion--he continually dresses up in female clothes--his parents laugh off. Go figure.

At issue is whether viewers will be laughing. Perhaps not.

"DiResta" has been compared to "The Honeymooners," but the resemblance is not readily apparent, and DiResta, although not without skills, is no Jackie Gleason. Who is?

*

* "Guys Like Us" premieres at 8 tonight. The network has rated it TV-G (suitable for all ages). "DiResta" follows at 8:30 p.m. and has been rated TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children). "The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer" follows at 9 p.m. and has been rated TV-14-DL (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language). All on UPN (Channel 13).

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