If "I'm With Her," the ABC sitcom that premieres tonight at 8:30, were not cute, smart and surprising, it could just be dismissed as a rip-off of the Julia Roberts-Hugh Grant movie "Notting Hill." Happily for fans of romantic comedy, the new show manages to be sweet and sharp, a lovely confection that makes satire and fantasy go down as easily as a yogurt smoothie.
The series' concept is identical to that of the 1999 film: A gorgeous movie star, America's sweetheart in the TV version, meets an attractive regular guy, and they fall in love. The idea was strong enough to overwhelm the serious character flaws of "Notting Hill's" protagonists: She was a thoughtless, petulant and probably promiscuous liar. He was a spineless mope. The beauty of the premise is that its appeal is pretty universal -- the normal self-doubt that accompanies infatuation can have almost anyone wondering: What does this goddess see in me?
Alex Young (Teri Polo) has a weakness for stray dogs, regardless of their pedigree. One of her rescued pooches bites Patrick Owen (David Sutcliffe) in the butt at a West Hollywood newsstand. She offers to pay the medical costs for his wounded tush, but her generosity is really an excuse to give the handsome high school teacher her phone number.
He quotes Balzac. She counters with a line from a Patrick Swayze movie. So this match has conflict written all over it, in words like "rich" and "poor," "renowned" and "obscure," "sophisticated and "naive." The two-different-worlds conceit would become tiresome if Alex felt the need to buck up Patrick's ego by offering constant variations of aw, shucks, a movie premiere is only a prom that Nicole Kidman and Bruce Willis show up at.
But when the couple first talk on the phone, she's as nervous as he should be. The writers handle the fact that he doesn't have the nerve to make the first move deftly -- his boldly bozo buddy Stevie (Danny Comden) answers Alex's phone when she calls and pretends to be him asking her out. Alex shows up for their coffee date, which goes so well it lasts all evening.
But it isn't all mini-golf and moonbeams for the photogenic and smitten. The tabloids quickly dub Patrick Joe Thousandaire, and when he decides that Alex arrives with too much heavy baggage, he's redirected onto the path to romance by one of his wise-beyond-his-years students.
"I'm With Her" tiptoes lightly through love's minefields, skewering celebrity and knowingly gliding into self-parody at times. Sutcliffe ("Gilmore Girls") never strains to be funny, and who wouldn't go for a guy whose favorite Bruce Springsteen song is "Thunder Road"? Polo ("Meet the Parents") is convincing as a popular actress.
Alex lives with her younger sister Cheri (Rhea Seehorn), whose sarcasm only partially hides a heart of gold. Cheri serves as an alter ego for the audience, as she alternately covets and disses her sister's stardom. She's a Maude for our time, and since she's given license to utter the most stinging put-downs, Alex can stay nice. "I'm With Her" is a triumph of wish-fulfillment, giving life to the notion that celebrities are exactly like us, only famous. When Dorothy adventured in the land of Oz, she learned that there's no place like home. This show's irresistible moral, there's nothing like normal, delicately tweaks that message, while still having some fun dropping high-wattage names.
Can the quality of tonight's episode be sustained? Co-creator Chris Henchy ("Spin City") is married to Brooke Shields, so he and partner Marco Pennette ("Caroline in the City") presumably have a family album full of stories from which to draw. Next week, Alex is intimidated by Patrick's brainy ex-girlfriend, an academic who can't remember seeing a movie that didn't have subtitles. Alex's feelings of inadequacy are those of a woman in love, not the insecurities of a neurotic diva. "I'm With Her" spins such departures from the obvious with silly charm.
When even "reality" television seldom portrays the truths of courtship and infotainment shows present the skinny on stars, as filtered by publicists, it's unlikely that this series will expose celebrity's ugly underbelly. After all, it's television, not sociology. But there are some interesting questions lurking in its situation. How does someone not become a narcissist when surrounded by people who ask, Would you like your orange juice room temperature or chilled, Miss Young? If the psychodynamics of privilege prove too heavy for this half-hour of pleasant fluff, it might be enough for "I'm With Her" to let its lovers wrangle with standard relationship hassles. To paraphrase Roberts' sappy speech at the end of "Notting Hill," even a movie star is just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her. And since long before Romeo and Juliet, that's been pretty compelling.
'I'm With Her'
When: Tuesdays, 8:30 p.m.; premieres tonight.
Rating: TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children, with an advisory for coarse language).
Teri Polo...Alex Young
David Sutcliffe...Patrick Owen
Danny Comden...Stevie Hanson
Rhea Seehorn ...Cheri Baldzikowski
Creators Chris Henchy and Marco Pennette. Executive producers Henchy, Pennette, Mike Tollin, Brian Robbins, Joe Davola and Jack Burditt. Director Ted Wass. Writers Henchy and Pennette.