Picks and Pans Review: Lateline

updated 03/16/1998 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/16/1998 AT 01:00 AM EST

NBC (Tuesdays, 9:30 p.m. ET)

A

It's handy to describe this workplace comedy in terms of its antecedents, say, The Larry Sanders Show meets Murphy Brown. But Lateline, getting a trial run starting March 17, stands on its own as the funniest new series of the 1997-98 season.

Cocreator Al Franken (former Saturday Night Live regular and author of Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot) plays Al Freundlich, dogged, klutzy correspondent for a network news show modeled on Nightline. Al takes himself and his work so seriously that he scarcely notices the ridicule heaped on his head by intense executive producer Vic Karp (Miguel Ferrer) and conceited anchor Pearce McKenzie (Robert Foxworth). Al's producer, Gale Ingersoll (Megyn Price), makes him look passable on the air while she angles tirelessly for a better position. Lateline draws plenty of laughs from the usual on-the-job situations, but the series' greatest potential lies in the synergy between office politics and Washington politics. It all comes together in the hilarious third episode, in which a sober program on a union issue suddenly turns into a giddy tribute to the dead (or so it is erroneously reported) comedian Buddy Hackett. This may sound unimaginable, but guests Richard Gephardt (House minority leader) and Robert Reich (ex-Labor Secretary) are a riot. A plea to NBC: Among all your Datelines, could you find room next fall for one little Lateline?

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