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This candidate deserved better

June 14, 2003|Brian Lowry | Times Staff Writer

There's something intriguing about taking stars in one medium and seeing if they can thrive in another -- at least until you see Michael Jordan in a baseball uniform, swinging wildly at an off-speed pitch.

Nathan Lane is a gifted stage performer, a master of musical comedy who earned raves in "The Producers" on Broadway and as the voice of the animated Timon in "The Lion King." Yet somehow, transplanting all that energy and theatricality into a TV-sized box hasn't taken.

The irony is that his long-delayed CBS sitcom, "Charlie Lawrence," isn't half-bad -- or at least deserves better than the late-spring cleaning (or more accurately, dumping) the network is giving it, slipping the episodes on at a time when they can do little damage to its lineup.

As if Lane's larger-than-TV persona must allow room for show biz, the series premiering Sunday casts him as an entertainer -- as did an earlier failed sitcom, NBC's "Encore, Encore," in which he played a former opera singer. Here, he's an actor best known for a cheesy drama called "Do Unto Others" (think "Touched by an Angel" with better costumes) who wins a congressional seat and becomes a stranger in the strange town of Washington, D.C. -- Lawrence of New Mexico.

Lane, who also has an executive producer credit, has his moments -- including an amusing speech to his assembled colleagues -- but occasionally does overwhelm the material as he bursts over the top.

Nevertheless, the show delivers a few laughs and puts a solid ensemble around him, with "Roseanne's" Laurie Metcalf as his buttoned-down chief of staff and a delightful Stephanie Faracy as his daft office assistant. When the latter is told that the congressman is gay, she dismisses it as a standard rumor regarding anybody from Hollywood -- the kind of droll dialogue you'd hope to see more of from writer-executive producer Jeffrey Richman, a "Frasier" alum.

This is hardly groundbreaking stuff, but it's also not the embarrassment CBS' out-the-side-door treatment would suggest. From that perspective, it's hard to escape a sense that the major network with the oldest and most rural audience profile was skittish about the prospects of a comedy with a flamboyant, openly gay lead -- particularly after Ellen DeGeneres' last sitcom, "Ellen," foundered two years ago.

Whatever the cause, the effect is that CBS essentially canceled this congressional comedy before it aired, without letting the audience vote on whether "Charlie Lawrence" warranted a second term.

That's also Lane's second strike in TV, suggesting a sitcom isn't the ideal showcase for his unique and considerable talents. Indeed, after this latest small-screen experience, whenever he's next tempted to venture beyond the stage, he might want to first try hitting a curveball.


'Charlie Lawrence'

Where: CBS

When: Premieres 8:30 p.m. Sunday

Rating: The network has rated the series TV-PGL (may be unsuitable for young children, with an advisory for coarse language

Production credits: Executive producers Jeffrey Richman, Nathan Lane; written by Richman; directed by Jay Sandrich

Nathan Lane...Charlie Lawrence

Laurie Metcalf...Sarah Grimes

Ted McGinley...Graydon Cord

Stephanie Faracy...Suzette Michaels

T.R. Knight...Ryan Lemming

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