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This sitcom is way beyond help

'The Help,' the WB's lame variation on "Upstairs, Downstairs," turns class warfare into crass warfare.

March 05, 2004|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

"The Help," a new series from Ron Leavitt, the man who created "Married ... With Children" -- a show to which I would never have expected to affix the words "far superior," but so be it -- is the sort of thing that makes me feel sorry for actors. No one forces them to be actors, of course, but it does call to mind the old joke about the man who sweeps up after the circus elephants.

There is sweeping-up-after aplenty in "The Help," a kind of "Downstairs, Upstairs" concerning the rich and fatuous Ridgeway family -- of Palm Beach or somewhere like it -- and the large and motley staff that unhappily serves them.

The Ridgeways, to ensure your disdain, are all horrible, stupid or senile; on the other hand, you don't see them much. The help are marginally more sympathetic, if only because they are not rich. But they are variously vain, dishonest, lazy, stupid and spiteful and barely more fond of one another than they are of the people they work for.

"Married ... With Children" was in its time thought by some to be truly radical television. Its dark inversion of "Father Knows Best," its total negation of family values and its insistent political incorrectness could be read, if you were in a mood to, as liberating.

W.C. Fields got there long before, to be sure, and "The Simpsons" was about to do it all better, but it was a breakthrough of sorts, even if unintentional: TV families are now as likely as not to hate one another, and for that you must in large part thank or blame the Bundys.

That spirit of negation informs or infects "The Help," which resembles "Married" in other ways. The dialogue consists largely of insults; the characters are bound mainly by inertia; and sex and less seemly bodily functions dominate the humor. The undulating derriere of Camille Guaty, scrubbing the floor as the new maid Maria -- she is as yet unspoiled, and therefore the only possible subject for your sympathy -- is the stuff of the first episode's first laugh. It also features David Faustino, "Married" son Bud Bundy, in what amounts to a cameo as the oldest Ridgeway son. He speaks only in grunts and lives in the pool house, where (it is said) he is visited exclusively by prostitutes, someone named Smokey and the house dog walker, played by Tori Spelling, using all her talents to impersonate a person who was not born into outrageous wealth.

Leavitt is, of course, now a rich person himself, and, to judge by his own statements, his new series is nothing so much as an expression of his own paranoia as regards the people who clean up after him. As he recently told Newsday, "I just kind of think that maybe they hate us. Sometime I'll be watching the news or a movie -- or more likely, sports -- and just when it comes to the part of the story I really care about, the vacuum goes on. It's just uncanny."

On "The Help," they spit in the water they use to make the ice cubes, sneeze on the dinner, kill the plants, pad their expenses, sleep with the children, sleep with the employer. The only reason they don't go elsewhere is that they're too lazy, dumb or untalented to manage it or because they are having too good a time at others' expense. "I make a good living doing nothing 'cept getting yelled at," says the narcoleptic, aged black housekeeper (Esther Scott). "I'm old and stupid."

There is good comedy to be made out of class warfare, especially in a society that hilariously claims to be classless -- Larry David gets good mileage out of the tension between the service class and the served. And the Roman satirist Juvenal demonstrated many long years ago that vitriol can be the stuff of ageless fun. But vitriol without intelligence is just vitriol; it's what any talk-radio caller can muster.

"The Help" is lame and limp. The jokes have a certain mathematical logic: You can see how they're funny in theory, though they're flat in practice and curiously geriatric -- old-fashioned in a way that suggests Leavitt has not been keeping up, either with comedy or the world that makes comedy possible.

"Have you guys seen the want ads? I don't know what a keypunch operator is," is a line written by a man who has himself obviously not looked at the want ads, except possibly in Variety, for quite some time, unless Leavitt is being purposely anachronistic for reasons too subtle for me to discern.

Nevertheless, it is nice to see grown-up Mindy Cohn, who was Natalie on "The Facts of Life," as Maggie the cook. Al Santos (formerly of the very far superior "Grosse Pointe" and here playing Ollie the chauffeur) has an obvious charm that may one day be put to better use, as does Guaty.

It is nice for that matter to see Faustino, and Spelling, who if nothing else seem to have the gift of not taking themselves too seriously. But it would be nicer to see them doing something else.


'The Help'

Where: The WB

When: Premieres 9:30 tonight

Rating: The network has rated the show TV-PGD (may not be suitable for young children, with an advisory for suggestive dialogue).

Mindy Cohn...Maggie the Cook

Camille Guaty...Maria the Maid

Al Santos...Ollie the Chauffeur

Antonio Sabato Jr....Dwayne the Trainer

Tori Spelling...Molly the Dog Walker

Brenda Strong...Arlene Ridgeway

David Faustino...Adam Ridgeway

Marika Dominczyk...Nanny Anna

Esther Scott...Nanny Doris

Creator, writer, Ron Leavitt. Executive producers, Leavitt and Marty Adelstein. Director, Gerry Cohen.

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