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Television / The New Season | Howard Rosenberg

Women Aren't Created Equal

Geena Davis makes a strong return to TV with her own show, playing a career woman venturing into stepmotherhood; Christine Baranski is coolly hilarious in 'Welcome to New York'; but 'Bette' displays none of its star's many talents.

October 09, 2000|HOWARD ROSENBERG | TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

For some of us die-hards, one of the nice things about seeing Geena Davis in a new TV comedy is the memories she evokes of "Buffalo Bill."

You're excused for not remembering, for "Buffalo Bill" lived only briefly on NBC in 1983-84 before retiring, unloved by the masses and, in fact, its own network. Created by Tom Patchett and Jay Tarses, it was risky and ingenious, to say nothing of very funny (to some of us), starring Dabney Coleman as a self-centered, mean-spirited, unredeemable local TV talk show host Bill Bittinger, who exploited everyone around him.

Including a naive station researcher played by Davis.

Perhaps suicidally, "Buffalo Bill" shattered a TV rule by centering a sitcom on a true antihero. In an especially brilliant episode bearing on racism, for example, a terrified Bill dreamed of being pursued by Zulu warriors, black hookers and other outrageous stereotypes to the music of Ray Charles' "Hit the Road, Jack."

Davis' potential was apparent even as third banana on a commercial flop. A year after "Buffalo Bill," she had her own NBC sitcom, a fleeting trifle named "Sara." And the rest--a highly successful, Oscar-winning run in movies--is history.

What goes around comes around these days, though, for arriving Tuesday on ABC is Herself in "The Geena Davis Show," an amusing comedy that has her New York character becoming tenuous stepmom to her fiance's two kids while carrying on a successful career and hanging out with her two galpals.

Davis' is one of three sitcoms premiering this week. The others, arriving Wednesday on CBS, also star gifted females: Christine Baranski in the witty, if uneven, "Welcome to New York" and Bette Midler in "Bette," a not-so-divine send-up of . . . herself. Well, she'll always have "The Rose."

"The Geena Davis Show" is no cutting-edge "Buffalo Bill," its familyhood premise rooted like an oak in decades of formulaic TV. It is sharply written and quite funny at times, though, inviting Davis--who is just terrific--to bare her ample comedic endowments while sunning in the glow of prime time.

Teddie Cochran (Davis) is flawed in the first several episodes, but lovably so, and even though at one point she belches loudly, disliking her is not an option.

She and Max Ryan (Peter Horton) are headed for the altar this season. But first she moves in with him and his kids, Carter (John Francis Daley), 13, and Eliza (Mackenzie Vega), immediately botching everything as new matriarch and offending their live-in "caregiver," Gladys (Esther Scott).

Happily, the humor here is less dependent on jokes than on situations. Although Eliza has a severe case of the cutes, the series scores best on the family front, where Teddie and genial Max relate in ways that are natural and unforced, and where she wears mommyhood awkwardly. "I'm the worst stepmom in the world," she pouts after one disastrous experience. "They're going to be writing fairy tales about me."

Much less successful are scenes at Teddie's workplace and other locales where she schmoozes with her friends, Hilary (Mimi Rogers), and Judy (Kim Coles). "The Geena Davis Show" has a not-so-secret weapon, though, for even when the series is not going especially well, its star is.

That also goes for the talented Baranski in "Welcome to New York," where her lascivious, self-serving character, Marsha Brickner, a top news executive at a big TV station, has some of nasty Bill Bittinger coursing through her veins. Baranski (Am I stretching this?) even comes from Buffalo.

The show co-protagonist here, bearing the same name of the actor who plays him (Why?) is Jim Gaffigan, the nerdy Indiana weathercaster she has just hired, even though he has the hayseed brand of someone who hitched a ride to New York on a cabbage truck.

The show's genesis should be no mystery, given that David Letterman, whose Worldwide Pants Inc. co-produces this series, got his own start on TV as an Indiana weathercaster.

Surely, though, he would not have encountered anyone as scintillatingly funny, in a cool and elegant way, as Baranski's patronizing news producer, who immediately orders her new weatherman to change his hair, clothes and "that cornfed belly."

Clearly not in Indiana anymore, he also has an encounter with egoist anchorman Adrian Spencer (Rocky Carroll). It's Baranski and Gaffigan as a unit, though, who drive the premiere. Observe his befuddlement in this weird new environment, as if he'd just been hijacked to Pluto. And observe her sleek comedy moves when she regards him as a UFO, her urban provincialism slinking to the surface.

Not everything here works. Yet "Welcome to New York" shows enough initially to be seen as highly promising.

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