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Some offbeat riffs about family values

Two domestic comedies and Steve Harvey's variety show begin tonight.

September 11, 2003|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

Variations on what might be called "family fun" describe tonight's television premieres.

The WB's "Run of the House" is a relatively painless half-hour -- if not particularly funny, it is at least good-hearted. The big idea here is that four dissimilar siblings, three of whom have in some respect failed, are back sharing a house their parents have temporarily vacated. With older-generational authority represented only by amusing, nosy neighbor Mo Gaffney, this is domestic comedy aimed at the younger set -- a laugh-tracked "Party of Five."

Joseph Lawrence (as Joey, the star of "Blossom" and "Brotherly Love"), who has at 27 become almost unrecognizably an adult, is Kurt Franklin -- the eldest, and most fretfully responsible, but with no real talent for authority. Playing id to his ego is younger brother Chris (Kyle Howard), who has quit law school because "it wasn't -- what's the word? -- fun."

Sister Sally (Sasha Barrese), who works both ego and id, has come home after breaking up with a boyfriend; she's supposed to be a bit of a slut and a bit of a dunce, but Barrese finds a human in there. Finally there is teenage Brooke (Margo Harshman), the only one who ought to be living at home. Surrounded by meddlesome and immature parental substitutes, she is the natural repository for our sympathy and interest and the most appealing character here -- not surprising, perhaps, given that creator Betsy Thomas is a veteran of "My So-Called Life."

Together they form what certainly must be the best-looking, best-dressed household in all of Grand Rapids, Mich. The twist, in television terms, is that, being related, they won't be trying to sleep with one another. (Sex is on the docket, to be sure, but the jokes are blessedly less specific than the current run of the mill. It's family-friendly sex.) Quite the contrary: "Run of the House" is shaping up to be all about "responsibility" and "love." I see life lessons ahead; set your course as you will.

Also living in the house they grew up in, and much more congenially, are UPN's "The Mullets," tonsorially challenged brothers who not only are Mullets but wear them as well. If you have seen the David Spade movie "Joe Dirt," you have already taken this ride about as far as it goes; as a TV series, it has all the heft of a "Saturday Night Live" sketch. Like the Spade film, "The Mullets," created by a couple of "Simpsons" alumni, wants to give something like dignity to white trash and to remind us that young men with bad hair, bad teeth and T-shirts with the sleeves ripped off are people too -- even as they are being made fun of by people who make TV shows.

As brother Denny, David Hornsby creates a character -- "uncannily" would be a nice word here -- close to Spade's Dirt: sweet, shy and, to the best of his ability, philosophical. Michael Weaver is the brawnier, rage-ready Dwayne, who gets the pilot's best line: "You know how Rome was built? In a day!" They have two friends: one of them severely stupid, and the other a black dude with a mullet, dude. There are references to Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer, Wrestlemania, the Scorpions and "Girls Gone Wild" videos.

Plucky Loni Anderson, still spookily the sexpot, plays mother Mullet, newly remarried to game show host John O'Hurley ("Seinfeld's" J. Peterman), who is all hauteur, disgust and dismay. If you have never seen a TV show in which the life-affirming, rowdy lower classes -- the "psyched, stoked and one-thousand-percent en-freakin'-thused," as Dwayne describes himself -- upset the repressed upper, now is your chance. I am tempted to say, "Act quickly," but as the words "Jethro Bodine" pop to mind, I will hold my peace.

Family entertainment in the old-fashioned sense is the stuff of "Steve Harvey's Big Time" (the WB), a kind of good-tempered "Gong Show" without the gong. There's nothing here to disquiet your dear old granny or prompt junior to ask questions you might not be ready to answer.

"Nowhere else on prime time television is anybody talking to everyday people," Harvey claims. By everyday people, he of course means people who have not yet been on national TV -- the current definition of ordinary being "not famous" -- since it is, after all, their very difference that has earned them a moment in the spotlight. But they are treated with scrupulous respect and friendly good humor, brought on as guests, not contestants, and asked only to shine, for the nation and for themselves. It is slight stuff, but irresistible, grounded as it is -- like "The Mullets," in fact -- in the valuable old idea that in America, the least of us, and the least conventional, represent the best of us.

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