ABC (Wednesdays, 8 p.m. ET)
The network promos pretty much hit it on the head: They bill the strict if benevolent matriarch played by comic Thea Vidale in this sitcom as "the mother of all mothers." Temperamentally, she's like one of those ladies who sits in the front pew of a Southern Pentecostal church fanning herself and shouting "Hallelujah!" But when it comes to raising four children by herself, this Houston widow has the advantage of being plugged into some psychic network. She can set one fool inside the threshold, sniff the air and declare with absolute certitude, "There's deception in this house!"
Despite the earthy enthusiasm Vidale brings to the role, predictable writing would quickly render this a monotonous, mannered enterprise. But it does have one rare asset: a beguiling kiddie corps. Thea's engaging offspring, especially the three boys, are leagues above TV's usual addled adolescents and jaded juveniles. There's Adam Jeffries, who was the best thing about the Fox sitcom True Colors, as the oldest; there's Jason Weaver, the one standout in last year's ABC mini, The Jacksons, as the sweet-talking middle son with the smile more beatific than Isiah Thomas's; finally, there's Brenden Jefferson, an adorable lot. Young talent this good deserves the script of all scripts.
ABC (Fridays, 8:30 p.m. ET)
Prime time's new enfant Savage is Ben, younger brother of Fred, who reigned as TV's cutest kid for five seasons on The Wonder Years before those awkward teen years intruded. In this sitcom, li'l Ben plays a smart-alecky boy, dealing oh-so-precociously with school and family. Betsy Handle a Mary Kay Place look-and-sound-alike, plays his mother, and William Buss portrays his father.
At one point Savage says to his teacher (St. Elsewhere's William Daniels), "Are you aware that I'm only 11 years old?" Actually that's an awfully hard concept to hold on to. Savage's sarcastic bon mots sound distinctly more like the words of a grown-up gag writer than they do the spontaneous utterings of a preadolescent. Even though they've dumbed him up since the Borscht Belt pilot, his character is still overwritten.
Ben does have two things going in his favor, however. His character is a Philadelphia Phillies fan, an awfully endearing trait. And he's got Daniels, the master of the withering riposte, as his primary foil. No TV actor since Gale Gordon can put as much sting into such a simple line as, "Well, you shrewd little observer of the human condition."
CBS (Fridays, 8:30 p.m. ET)
TV is given over to the extravagant gesture. Here it makes a grand, profligate waste of two exceedingly gifted performers: Peter Scolari (Newhart) and Pamela Reed (Kindergarten Cop). He's a doctor; she's an architect. Together they decide to relocate from Sacramento back to their hometown of Philadelphia (call it the City of Brotherly Sitcoms) to be near their aging parents, only to realize, too late, that this means they'll be living next to their parents!
The sitcom, from Marta Kauffman and David Crane, the creators of HBO's Dream On, wants to be '90s sophisticated and sharp but ends up disintegrating in its own vitriol. At its core is a selfish yuppie ambivalence toward both parents and children. "We moved away from them for a reason," whines Reed. Responds Scolari: "We're grown up now. You've had therapy. We can handle it. They're not getting any younger." "And that's a bad thing?" she asks.
Before the second commercial in the pilot, Scolari's 14-year-old has shrieked at him, "Don't mock my pain," while his father has called him a "pain in the ass". And his nephew, a delinquent named Elvis who looks like Squiggy from Laverne and Shirley, has tried to pilfer a vase from his foyer.
Three rancid generations under one roof: call it The Joyless, Luckless Club. There's too much unredeemed pain in this comedy.
Fox (Fridays, 9 p.m. ET)
Mr. Fox Mulder is an FBI agent of the same stripe as agent Dale Cooper of Twin Peaks: an otherworldly guy, a kooky karma cat at home with the paranormal. (By the by, David Duchovny, who plays Mulder, had a kinky part in Peaks as the transvestite agent Dennis/Denise.)
Mulder doesn't get the run-of-the-mill cases. He's assigned to the troublesome hummers, the strange, seemingly inexplicable incidents the government would like to hush up, cases involving alien abductions, bloodthirsty mutants and things that go "Gotcha!" in the dark. The bureau has shackled Mulder with a skeptical, scientific partner (Gillian Anderson) to keep him rooted in reality. Ha!
If the producers can keep the mood spooky, this show will have its devoted adherents. Deservedly so.
NBC (Tuesdays, 9:30p.m. ET)
Stand-up comic John Mendoza is an unlikely personality to build a show around, with his Droopy Dog demeanor and voice more somnolent than the guy in the Champion Mortgage commercials ("When your bank says, 'No,' Champion says, 'Yesss' "). But, hey, it works. Mendoza is funny as a recently divorced Chicago sports-writer and weekend dad. He's a thoroughly unpretentious guy. Oh, what the heck: Let's call a slob a slob.
The supporting cast includes Jessica Lundy (Over My Dead Body) as Mendoza's nurse sister and Wayne Knight (Seinfeld's annoying Newman) as his editor at the paper.
So far this show is little more than a frivolous entertainment, but it has the ingredients to develop into a consistently rewarding comedy.
>A DOUBLE SCOOP OF GLAMORAMA THERE ARE BONY BEAUTIES EVERY-WHERE you look on Monday (Oct. 11). In Fox's Model By Day (8 p.m. ET), real-life runway strutter Famke Janssen plays an international fashion model who, at night, dons a skimpy dominatrix outfit and prowls the streets of Manhattan, using her martial-arts skills on miscreants. Stephen Shellen, Shannon Tweed and Sean Young co-star. Of course, the key credit in this campy movie is costume design, provided by Chanel, Donna Karan, Vivienne Westwood and others. Then there's The Look, a revealing if occasionally redundant exploration of high fashion, and the designers, models, photographers, buyers, agents, wealthy clotheshorses and magazine editors who keep this demimonde spinning so dizzily. The two-part British documentary airs on consecutive Mondays at 9:30 p.m. ET on PBS.
The most dreaded words in TV: "And now, here again, is Stone Phillips."