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TV REVIEWS : 'Lois & Clark' Soars, and So Does Townsend

September 11, 1993|HOWARD ROSENBERG | TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

The less-than-rhapsodic fall season continues to unfold Sunday with a loud confrontation that will help determine which network takes second place in the ratings that night behind "60-Minutes"-led CBS.

Clashing like cymbals will be the premieres of ABC's "Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman" and NBC's "seaQuest DSV," expensive, high-profile series that face each other (and "Murder, She Wrote" on CBS) at 8 p.m. And preceding them at 7 p.m. is the even noisier premiere of Fox's "Townsend Television," a fresh and funny variety hour starring writer-producer-director-performer Robert Townsend.

"Townsend Television" is one big, wonderfully rowdy party, and "Lois & Clark" is a clever and rewarding Man of Steel remake that zooms across the airwaves faster than a speeding bullet. But the operative words for "seaQuest DSV"--a Steven Spielberg series about a futuristic submarine--are glub glub glub.

At least that was the prevailing opinion from critics who were shown the pilot this summer by NBC--the same premiere episode that the network this week said was still being revised and would be unavailable for previewing prior to Sunday. So down periscope, and on to something that isn't under water.

Written by co-executive producer Deborah Joy LeVine and directed by Robert Butler, the premiere of "Lois & Clark" (on Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42) is relentlessly witty despite running a near double-sized hour and 45 minutes. Although he possesses extraordinary powers and the usual Krypton hunkiness, it's the pre-Superman Clark Kent (Dean Cain) we meet as he arrives in Metropolis, fresh from his parents' Kansas farm and determined to get a job as a reporter for the Daily Planet. At "the greatest newspaper in the whole world," he meets the woman whom editor Perry White calls "the best damned investigative reporter I've ever seen."

And as a bonus, Lois Lane (Teri Hatcher) is a real babe, too.

This is the 1990s, after all, so this Lois is just a little bit jaded and cynical. As always, though, she's foolhardy as well as fearless, and her snooping gets her into jams that she can be extricated from by only You Know Who. Yet shrewd and observant as she is, poor Lois still can't recognize the bespectacled Clark as Superman.

As always, meanwhile, Perry (Lane Smith) is affably dense; although a bit of an operator, Jimmy Olsen (Michael Landes) worships Lois, and master criminal Lex Luthor (John Shea) is eternally villainous, if more serious and urbane than Gene Hackman's deliciously rotten Luthor in those "Superman" movies. Lois has her own office nemesis in Clark-lusting society columnist Catherine (Cat) Grant (Tracy Scoggins).

Cain, Hatcher and everyone else here strike just the right tone of playfulness. It's the writing that sends this parody into orbit, however. "Lois & Clark" is a series that flies.

*

Robert Townsend's talent simply explodes across "Townsend Television" (on Channels 11 and 6), and if enough viewers respond to him, Fox will have its most successful 7 p.m. series ever in an evening whose present lineup also includes two returnees, "Martin" and "Married . . . With Children," and two other newcomers, "Living Single" and the grating "Daddy Dearest."

Featuring sketches, music and dancing in the aisles that turns the entire studio into a stage, this sparkly hour is energized from start to finish. A Godfather sketch--with Townsend's cigar-smoking "Bill Cosby" as the don, "Prince" as Johnny Fontaine, "Mr. T" as Sonny Corleone, "Sammy Davis Jr." as Michael Corleone and Andy Griffith's "Floyd the Barber" as Tom Hagen--is devilishly funny. Not far behind is a private-eye sketch in which Townsend attaches a high-toned English accent to black dialect. And there is much more.

The writing and execution are inspired and polished, the musical components innovatively conceived. And a show-ending musicale to honor a stand-up comic ill with AIDS shows Townsend's daredevil ability to veer sharply from comedy without crashing.

Because "Townsend Television" has a predominantly African-American cast--and is performed inexplicably in front of what appears to be a monolithically black audience--it's tempting to think of it as a classy version of Fox's coarser "In Living Color." But "Townsend Television's" mastery of the absurd is distinctive. If the writing holds up, so will the laughs.

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