THE WORTHIEST LITTLE SITCOM IN ALL the realm is CBS's Bonnie, but the realm hasn't had much chance to acknowledge the fact. This quietly funny series, in which Hunt plays a TV reporter hired to do local "color" segments for a Chicago news station, made its debut last September on Fridays. The Bonnie Hunt Show, as it was then called, earned warm reviews, but the ratings stank, and only six episodes made it on the air. (Hunt's previous sitcom, 1993's The Building, fared no better.) Now the show, which happens to come from David Letterman's production company, Worldwide Pants, is being given a second chance. It returns Sun., March 10, at 8:30 p.m. ET

To be honest, I missed the show the first go-round. Fool, thou! Because, having now sat through several episodes, I can report that I experienced a mild but pleasant dizziness. The show seems to take place at an altitude where the air is thin but pure.

The scripts have a comfortable—and refreshing—looseness, even lackadaisically. In a typical episode, Hunt stays up too late, then gets sleepy-tipsy—and blabby—at a lunch with a network executive (George Hamilton, who tries to amuse her by doing impersonations, all of them Cary Grant). Her boss gets upset: He thinks she may have been indiscreet about office politics. She apologizes. He sends flowers. There's the vaguest hint of incipient romance.

The episodes are done in one taping (most sitcoms use two, which are then edited together) with a certain amount of improvisation. Hunt, who's probably best known for playing third banana (to Charles Grodin and a Saint Bernard) in the two Beethoven movies, started out at Chicago's Second City, and so did costars Tom Virtue, who plays a cameraman, Holly Wortell, her best friend, and Don Lake, her neighbor. The dialogue is casually mumbled and—in rapid-fire exchanges between Hunt and Wortell—blurred. It may take a moment before you realize that Hunt has just made a peculiar comment about wearing mirror contact lenses that reflect the brain.

The overall tone of Bonnie is polite diffidence. But it's obviously the work of a confident comic mind. Hunt, who created the show and has a hand in the scripts, projects a deadpan cheerfulness that isn't so much sunny as it is uncloudedly sane.

My one complaint is that shorter, perkier new title, which sounds like a vehicle for Bonnie Franklin.

The Disney Channel (Mondays, 7:30 p.m. ET)

B+

On a trip into the Outback, a 14-year-old boy walks into a magnetic field. (About the size of a recreational van and shimmering like water, it looks like a freestanding wading pool.) He reemerges into an alternative universe, your basic two-class society of peasants and tyrants. The latter usually arrive unannounced in corroded metal airships. This half-hour sci-fi series from Australia isn't wildly imaginative, but the story is sturdy, and the airships impressive.

CBS (Mondays, 9:30 p.m. ET)

B-

What a novel concept: an ad agency staffed with attractive twentysomethings! Note the devastating sarcasm of that exclamation point. But I'm glad to see Wendie Malick. Best known as Brian Benben's ex-wife on Dream On, she's a comic actress of unusual polish. As the agency's ruthless creative director, she snaps her lines with light, confident flicks, as if ruling the office with a designer whip.

TBS (Tues., March 12, 8:05 p.m. ET)

C

This is a disappointingly routine (and, at two hours, overlong) run-through of the history of movie-star dogs, cats, horses, mules and pigs. There's too much Benji, the canine hairbrush, and not enough Babe, the Oscar pork. The trivia, however, is good. Rin Tin Tin's trainer discovered him in the German trenches during World War I. And John Wayne once won Lassie in a poker game with the collie's owner, Rudd Weatherwax. But Lassie was given back the following day.

ABC (Wed., March 13, 8:30 p.m. ET)

B-

Meredith Baxter is both producer and star of a sitcom about junior high school teachers. She manages to shake out a few laughs and give her character, the vice principal, a kind of neurotic friskiness. Or maybe it's the way she's teased her hair that makes me think that. Like Good Company, The Faculty is a blandly pleasant but fundamentally antediluvian sitcom.

CBS (Wed., March 13, 9 p.m. ET)

C+

Debrah Farentino and Lindsay Wagner (when did she start looking like Judy Collins?) are the unlucky wives of an on-the-lam bigamist (John Terry). His manners are seductively smooth, but his eyes are as cold and unsmiling as a pigeon's. Even though the women decide to hunt him down, this two-hour movie doesn't stoop to generating suspense. Instead, Farentino and Wagner gradually join together in mutual support and so move on to higher emotional ground. They don't need an audience—they have each other.

>TUBE: Good Company isn't really; Lindsay Wagner fights a bigamist with A Mother's Instinct

SCREEN: Parenting's a hilarious drag in The Birdcage with Robin Williams and Nathan Lane; a kidnapping goes curiously awry in Fargo 19

SONG: Lou Reed takes a walk on the polemical side; Cassandra Wilson reveals where she gets her drive 22

PAGES: A Tokyo cartoonist finds inspiration in Audrey Hepburn's Neck; Piecework culls Pete Hamill's best 28

BYTES: The Web site Firefly sheds light on musicians; a homeless man discovers digital rehab 37

>The Academy Awards

AN OFF YEAR FOR THE OSCARS?

HOW BIG WERE LAST YEAR'S ACADEMY Awards? With host David Letterman making a much-anticipated debut, Elton John singing "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" from The Lion King, and an emotional thank you by Tom Hanks for winning Best Actor in Forrest Gump, the 67th annual Oscars drew a whopping 80 million U.S. viewers, the most since 1983, when Terms of Endearment swept five statuettes. To the delight of ABC, which broadcast the event, the Awards telecast was the second-highest-rated TV show of 1995. But this year, Oscar seems a bit... down. Such art-house films as Leaving Las Vegas, Dead Man Walking and The Postman are major contenders, Letterman has been replaced by ho-hum ex-host Whoopi Goldberg, and Hanks, who starred in Apollo 13, has been upstaged by the farm animals of Babe. More than ever before, the Oscars (March 25, 9 p.m. ET) risk alienating the mass audience. Should ABC be nervous?

According to the experts, that depends on how you look at things. ABC "might have been happier" with more high-profile nominations, says Steve Sternberg of the BJK&E Media Group. But even with a lackluster star roster, says Gene DeWitt of DeWitt Media, an advertising-consulting firm, ratings ought to hold up. Think of a lopsided Super Bowl: on one hand, people tune out; on the other, it is the Super Bowl. "Even if you lose a few percent," DeWitt says, "it's still going to be one of the highest-rated events of the year."

And what about the advertisers who last fall forked over $685,000 for 30-second spots? If the show fares poorly, ABC may find it harder to sell time next year. Still, some sponsors claim that the Oscars will remain a golden opportunity. "I'm not sure it's my dream telecast," says Mike Neavill, media director for AT&T, "but it draws an audience that doesn't watch a lot of TV—what we call the light television viewer. It's a really efficient way to reach people you normally don't reach." And besides, Babe may not be such a turnoff after all. Says Chuck Ross, media director of Advertising Age: "We're all pulling for the pig, aren't we?"

  • Contributors:
  • Lorna Grisby.