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'Courting Alex,' a.k.a. Dharma playing Greg

January 23, 2006|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

Does it strike anyone else as a failure of the imagination that Jenna Elfman's new sitcom is essentially her last one stood on its head? In "Courting Alex," which begins tonight on CBS, she plays an uptight, Type A Manhattan corporate lawyer who, by the end of Episode 1, has fallen for Scott, a motorcycleriding, day-seizing firefighter-turned-tavern-keeper, played by Josh Randall. In short, she is Greg to his Dharma.

I don't know how many minds came together or how long to create "Courting Alex," not to be confused with "Chasing Amy" or "Judging Amy" or "Crossing Jordan" or "Regarding Henry" or "Killing Zoe" or any other work with a title in which a gerund precedes a proper name. (Reportedly, an earlier version of the show was scrapped entirely.) But if it were my career that was about to be either advanced or stalled, I would ask to see the time cards.

Having conceived a great liking for Elfman in the 1996 series "Townies," in which she created a remarkably whole human being in remarkably short order, it pained me not to like "Dharma & Greg," a cartoon in which she played a cartoon character. (I do realize that I hold a minority opinion here.) But I root for her.

This being a marginally more realistic show than was "D&G," there's some hope a marginally realistic character might emerge, though it's too soon to tell. The pilot is neither a disaster nor a triumph; it's rooted in the hoary premise of the attracted opposites, and decorated in familiar tropes of sitcomedy, but it's neatly done. Except perhaps in its rush to push Alex and Scott into unearned romance, it doesn't insult the viewer's intelligence or the dignity of man. (Which cannot be said for every situation comedy.)

The great Dabney Coleman is here, not showing his teeth as much as he might, as Alex's much-divorced father and boss, who wants to tear down Scott's tavern so that an important client can build a skyscraper. (Like New York needs another one of those.) He made me laugh in this exchange:

"Dad, how do you know when someone's right for you?"

"Easy. They sign my pre-nup."

For some reason, he is trying to set up Alex with fellow attorney Stephen (Josh Stamberg), even though anyone can see he's just Ralph Bellamy, the disposable schnook. In the easy-road way of these things, Stephen is a character made not to take seriously. (How much more interesting it would be if he were.)

Alex also has a neighbor, an artist played by Hugh Bonneville, who was someone else entirely (and very good at it) in "The Robinsons," a British comedy seen here on BBC America. He comes and goes like Howard Borden. And she has an assistant (Jillian Bach), who is petite and funny and has the gift of making you pay attention to her.

All these actors get along well together and, now and then, get something to spark.

Elfman's own best moments are when some long-suppressed goofy girlishness cracks through the too-responsible adult, and if she can fan that ember into a steady fire, I will happily warm myself there.


'Courting Alex'

Where: CBS

When: 9:30 to 10 tonight

Ratings: TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children with advisory for coarse language)

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