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TELEVISION REVIEW

Mama Kath's nest is invaded by a baby

The American remake of an Aussie comedy can't decide what it's satirizing. And by the way, it's miscast.

October 09, 2008|Mary McNamara | Times Television Critic

The international markets plunge, the presidential campaign sinks to mudslinging lows and "Kath & Kim” premieres tonight at 8:30 on NBC. Is that the sound of the Seventh Seal cracking in an ancient desert somewhere?

One of a fistful of international remakes flung against this television season, "Kath & Kim" opens with the first of its titular characters working out in clothes that haven't been popular since Jane Fonda was bulimic. Seriously, purple spandex and a colored sweatband? What did Molly Shannon, who plays the self-help-afflicted consumatrix Kath, do to deserve this?

For a brief moment, a viewer is left to wonder if this perhaps is one of those period shows that have become so popular. But no, enter quickly Kim (Selma Blair), Kath's daughter, fleeing her new marriage because her husband wants her to "do things . . . like cook dinner."

And we're off, with a mother/daughter Odd Couple that is drained almost immediately of any comic value except for the black hole of anger and narcissism that is Blair's Kim. Spoiled rotten girls are funny. Spoiled vicious girls are not. Still, with her mall-crawl crop top, muffin-topped short shorts and immediate Britney Spears references -- "Is Britney Spears stupid? Is Melanie Griffinith [sic] stupid? Because they both left bad men" -- she's nothing if not modern.

So how idiotic is Kath? Forget that she's a mother so clueless she thinks her clearly bipolar daughter just needs a little attitude adjustment. She may be the only middle-aged woman in America who hasn't discovered yoga pants.

If this seems like a lot of space to devote to wardrobe, it's only because everything just gets worse from here, and, frankly, it pains me to write about it. For one thing, the original Australian "Kath & Kim” was very funny, and it's always embarrassing when a U.S. version doesn't measure up. Though why anyone would think we could take on an Aussie comedy is beyond me. Can you imagine, say, "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" with Brad and George in the lead roles?

For reasons perhaps only Christopher Guest understands, it is very difficult for Americans to do the broad hyper-social satire that the Brits and Aussies specialize in. Perhaps it's because Americans are not comfortable with lead characters who are lovably absurd. We have a disturbing need for simple-mindedness to be recognized as wisdom, a la Forrest Gump.

This both dilutes and confuses things in a show like "Kath & Kim," which desperately tries to caricature both family dynamics and consumer culture but winds up just abusing its terrific cast. "Saturday Night Live" alum Shannon is an instantly likable comedic actress, and she really is doing the best she can. But with lines like "Well I've turned a corner and his name is Phil" and "What the bedazzle is she doing now?" -- well, honey, not even Meryl Streep would stand a chance.

Meanwhile, Blair, so great in the "Hellboy" franchise, is totally wrong here. She's too beautiful for one thing, with her smoldering eyes and throaty voice. Watching her shove herself into the tabloid-quoting, Applebee's-loving Kim is like imagining a young Lauren Bacall playing the lead role in "Clueless" -- the role fits her just about as well as those shorts.

The only actor who seems at ease is John Michael Higgins, who plays Kath's boyfriend, the hilarious and gung-ho mall sandwich shop manager.

The irritating-baby-bird-returns-to-the-nest-just-when-Mom-is-rediscoveri ng-her-Total-Womaness certainly has promise, and the moments of mid-fury consumer/celebrity connection between the two -- "Ooh those shoes are cute" -- are amusing.

But "Kath & Kim" needs to decide if it wants to satirize American parenting or popular culture. Because if the first two episodes are any indication, it certainly cannot do both.

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mary.mcnamara@latimes .com

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'Kath & Kim'

Where: NBC

When: 8:30 p.m. today

Rating: TV-14-D (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with an advisory for suggestive dialogue)

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