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Television Review

'Best Friends': Stereotypes Move In to CBS Comedy

February 28, 2001|HOWARD ROSENBERG | TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

First "Will & Grace," now Will & Guido. Just about, anyway.

NBC has a big hit in "Will & Grace," the comedy about a straight woman and gay man who are best friends and neighbors, with Will's platonic gay friend, Jack, swishing in and out of their lives.

Traveling a fast lane that ABC's "Ellen" cleared, "Will & Grace" is now the envy of other networks. So send in the clones, with tonight bringing "Some of My Best Friends," a lowbrow new CBS comedy inspired by the movie "Kiss Me, Guido."

Jason Bateman is Warren, who needs a roommate to help pay the rent on his Greenwich Village apartment now that his boyfriend has split. Answering his ad is Danny Nucci as macho Frankie, a sweet but dumb palooka (I.Q. roughly about 50) and aspiring heterosexual actor from the Bronx who doesn't suspect that Warren is one a'dem, y'know, "homos." Frankie doesn't pick up on the obvious signs: Despite appearing to be a regular sort of guy, Warren is also sensitive, adores Bette Midler and has posters of movie musicals on his walls.

Oh, boy, though, does Frankie get the message when in minces Warren's platonic little buddy, the flaming Vern (Alec Mapa), who makes Jack of "Will & Grace" look like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Frankie's own best friend from home, meanwhile, is even more of a log than him, a seeming impossibility. But this is television.

Broadly speaking, the roots of "Some of My Best Friends" go deeper than "Kiss Me, Guido." Familiar stereotypes have always earned easy howls, from minstrel shows and old-time burlesque to political cartoons that deploy exaggeration as parody. The especially obnoxious ones ultimately fail when the multitudes realize their humor is not only hollow but at times twisted and even dangerous.

You could always get a laugh with a bug-eyed African American who was afraid of his own shadow, until enlightenment intervened. You could always get a laugh with a funny drunk, until the epiphany that alcoholism wasn't a joke. And when saner minds don't prevail, you can still please some knee-slappers by putting on the screen a wristy little fellow who talks and acts like a sissy, one like Vern who isn't meant to be accepted for who he is but instead is targeted by gag writers as a freak. Do these folks exist? Of course. But not to the extent that they eclipse the greater mass of less overt gay males.

Cheap stereotypes usually evoke cheap laughs. However, "Some of My Best Friends" doesn't get even many of those from its assembly line of cliches and stock characters, who include Frankie's equally dense Italian American parents.

"Some of My Best Friends" is the lead-in for Bette Midler's relocated comedy, the struggling "Bette," somewhat of an irony in that the Divine One got her start singing in gay bathhouses.

Tonight finds Warren trying to keep Frankie in the fold, and Frankie gamely trying to make the best of this odd coupling when no immediate escape seems possible. Bateman has the skills to give Warren some nuance amid this heavy drooling, but that is not where this series appears to be heading, based on an early sampling. Even lamer is the second episode, when Frankie is desperate to hide his new roommate's sexual orientation after some quasi-humans from "d'neighborhood" drop by for a night of TV boxing and brewskies. And would you believe?

Not so divine.

* "Some of My Best Friends" premieres tonight at 8 on CBS. The network has rated it TV-PG-DL (may be unsuitable for young children, with special advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language).

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