What a difference a year makes.
Nine series that began the 1997-98 television season on Monday night are now history. Expect the same for at least some of their successors, six of which premiere tonight in advance of a trio of scrawny new UPN comedies due to arrive Oct. 5.
Given how programs tend to suckle their lead-ins when it comes to ratings, the fate of CBS' new 10 p.m. drama, "L.A. Doctors," will rest in part on the Nielsen success of two comedies that are premiering earlier in the evening against a pair of new NBC sitcoms.
Also joining the fray tonight, meanwhile, is the young-skewed WB drama, "Hyperion Bay."
* Dueling Comedies 1: "The King of Queens," CBS, vs. "Conrad Bloom," NBC, at 8:30 p.m. No contest. "Conrad Bloom" is pretty much a loud thud, while "The King of Queens" demonstrates how funny writing and good execution can supersede a hackneyed series concept. This one is "the move-in." You know, things are going great for you in your happy little home when an alien--usually a dependent in-law or slothful relative--unexpectedly moves in and gums up everything. Oy!
In "The King of Queens," a double whammy hits Doug Heffernan (Kevin James), a parcel deliveryman whose dream existence--having a basement room for him and his bozo buddies to watch sports on his 60-inch set--is disrupted by the presence of his sister-in-law (Lisa Rieffel) and his just-widowed 75-year-old father-in-law (Jerry Stiller).
"I love those guys," Doug says about his Neanderthal sports-watching buddies.
"Good," answers his wife, Carrie (Leah Remini). "Maybe you could toilet train them?"
James and Remini mesh; Stiller (as he showed as George's father on "Seinfeld") can play outrageous with anyone, and this good cast gets some snappy lines worthy of its skills.
By the way, Episode 2 is less funny than the premiere, but there's always hope for No. 3.
None, though, for "Conrad Bloom," which is about a young advertising copywriter (Mark Feuerstein) who is an intolerable do-gooder, managing only an occasional whimper while allowing himself to be manipulated by those around him.
Heading that list is his self-obsessed, neurotic mother (Linda Lavin), who chats regularly with her dead husband. Yuk yuk. At the office, meanwhile, Conrad is forced into a work partnership with an over-the-hill, drug-hazed former star ad-writer (Steve Landesberg) who is in a total fog.
Although Feuerstein is likable enough, his character's relentless wimpiness is hard to bear. And the premiere's clumsy attempts at humor--including some cheap jokes at the expense of animal rights activists--hardly serve him well.
* Dueling Comedies 2: "Will & Grace," NBC, vs. "The Brian Benben Show," CBS, at 9:30 p.m.. Although hardly as funny as its billing, "Will & Grace" is in a much higher place than "The Brian Benben Show." This affirms that even an actor with superior talent--which Benben displayed consistently on HBO's wonderful "Dream On"--is at the mercy of his material.
His material here is merciless.
After 15 years as a local news anchor, Brian is bumped by a sexier young news team and relegated to doing human-interest features. Expect some occasional pointed humor, with Brian at one point angrily telling his smug young successor, Chad (Charles Esten): "I'd pour this coffee in your lap if I thought I'd hit anything."
It's the rest of the comedy that fails to hit anything, though. Foregoing subtlety, much of the premiere is either repulsive--such as gratuitously making the aged an automatic object of ridicule--or flat-out infantile, bordering on sub-stupid. Typifying the latter is the bitter Brian's foolish, over-the-top attempt to sabotage Chad on the air. With the real TV news being such a self-mocking low burlesque, more of these overshooting verbal and physical pratfalls may guarantee this series obscurity.
"Will & Grace," on the other hand, carries a big buzz, some of which is driven by the on-screen compatibility of co-stars Eric McCormack and Debra Messing. Clearly, they work together.
The rest comes from Will being openly gay, which merits a large asterisk in the immediate aftermath of ABC's controversial "Ellen."
Although they're a great-looking couple, Will and Grace are strictly platonic, living on after tonight's pilot as flatmates and close friends in a pairing of two smart characters--he's a successful Manhattan lawyer, she's an interior designer--you wouldn't mind revisiting.
Yet there's something not quite right about this show's approach to homosexuality.
It's unrelated to Will being masculine and, like the protagonist of "Ellen," a rather conventional type discounting his sexual orientation. In fact, score this as another blow against stereotyping.
It has everything to do with his attitude. It approaches asexual, his gayness appearing to exist solely as a device to give him the moral authority to repeatedly ridicule the mincing manner of his bandanna-wearing homosexual friend, Jack (Sean Hayes), without being labeled homophobic.