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Mixed Blessings in Midseason

Howard Rosenberg / Television

March 24, 1999|HOWARD ROSENBERG

NBC's "Seinfeld" was--will always be--the funniest sitcom ever, even in reruns.

Just Monday night, for example, KTLA-TV aired an episode from the 1996 season, "The Soulmate," that, despite being just mid-level Jerry, was again laugh-out-loud funny even after three years of recyclings.

It was written by a fellow named Peter Mehlman, who ultimately spent seven seasons with the series and was then an executive producer. The same Mehlman whose new series on ABC, "It's like, you know . . . ," wastes no time tonight in deploying a strategically trivial dialogue between two characters that begins this way: "Don't you think the letter Q should come farther down the alphabet?"

No, you can't go home again, even when home, this time, is on another coast.

Hardly an evening goes by that someone on television doesn't make fun of Los Angeles. So a weekly comedy about the city's storied weirdness--from televised freeway chases to cell-phone gridlock--seems almost superfluous. Doubly so one that also tries mightily to be "Seinfeld" West.

That's the mountain of yada-yadas facing Mehlman's "It's like, you know . . . ," a sitcom that tonight begins a six-week run. It provides an experience as uneven as that of living in Los Angeles, which many Easterners see as a cultural lunarscape of panoramic barrenness and sterility. Like, you know, as opposed to the Bronx.

Also arriving tonight on ABC is "The Norm Show," starring Norm Macdonald, much funnier in this sleeper of a sitcom than he was as the smirky newsreader on NBC's "Saturday Night Live," whose firing of him ultimately may have elevated his career by making him TV's biggest comedy martyr of the '90s.

Macdonald plays a former pro hockey player sentenced to community service as a social worker after his conviction for tax evasion. It's evident that social work is no easy fit for him tonight when one of his clients trades her job at a pizza parlor for one at a massage parlor.

His boss: "I can never tell if you're just joking or you're just stupid." Norm: "Well, I try to mix it up, sir."

Macdonald's ability to do this without being stupid--his character is actually quite smart--is key to this series, some of which is just a hoot, its humor perfectly tailored to its star's offbeat sardonic style. He delivers here with a relaxed ease that contrasts vividly with Laurie Metcalf as his gratingly hyperventilating colleague, who finds Norm's ways mystifying.

The Humor's Unique on 'Tenacious D'

Rounding out the evening's trio of newcomers is "Tenacious D," a likably strange weekly comedy about a rock band that affirms HBO as having TV's most distinctive programs.

Jack Black and Kyle Gass reprise the double-talking, double-chinned characters they played in a couple of HBO short films. Titling themselves "the greatest rock 'n' roll band in the world," they're a pair of singing, guitar-strumming sausages who perform in the backwaters of show biz before club patrons who hardly take notice.

"Tenacious D" is for viewers with a yen for the bent. It's stream-of-consciousness bizarre; in one episode, a large human-like creature with long, hairy arms--Sasquatch--comes down from the mountains to be the troubadours' drummer. He's crushed when things don't work out.

As for more familiar drumbeats . . .

Although Los Angeles is too vast and diverse to be captured in a single set of stereotypes, "It's like, you know . . ." makes the effort, with highly mixed results.

Muzak for the premiere is one of those freeway chases, provoking this amusing exchange from the characters sitting transfixed in front of a TV set:

"He shoulda grabbed a hostage. Then he coulda used the carpool lane."

"The good news is he's gonna hit traffic if he doesn't exit the 101 Freeway before the 405 split."

"No, he should stay on the 101, then take the 405 south to the 5 at the El Toro Y."

"Yeah, but if he takes the 101 to the 134. . . ."

Aghast while observing this vacuity ("So we're gonna sit around like idiots and watch this car chase?") is a New Yorker named Arthur (Chris Eigeman), who is starting a two-month stay in L.A. to write a book about the city. He's bunking with his former college roommate, Robbie (Steven Eckholdt), who has made a fortune selling pay-for-view celebrations of the Jewish High Holy Days "emceed" by a rabbi. Completing the show's fivesome are Robbie's moneyed friend Shrug (Evan Handler); Lauren, a masseuse/process server (A.J. Langer); and Robbie's celebrity neighbor, the famously re-nosed Jennifer Grey, playing herself while being constantly asked by strangers: "Aren't you Jennifer Grey?"

When you think about funny put-downs of contemporary Los Angeles, coming to mind is a scene in the 1991 movie "L.A. Story," with Steve Martin's TV weatherman having to provide a financial statement to earn a reservation at a trendy restaurant. Just as that movie could not sustain its easy ambience, "It's like, you know . . ." engages in a pursuit of stereotypes ultimately as interminable as the car chase mesmerizing its Angelenos.

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