12/02/1996 at 01:00 AM EST
BEFORE SINKING EACH NIGHT ONTO the pillow of her slumbers, Brooke Shields
can gaze into her hand mirror and remind herself that she is the most beautiful woman on prime time. That face, a flawless porcelain oval with small features of perfect regularity, should be launching ships. Shields's lifelong dilemma, sadly, has been that the shipbuilding industry has dried up, forcing her to be constantly in search of something else to launch. There were always ads to model for, of course, and she made a determined but not very successful foray into motion pictures (Brenda Starr). In recent years, without much of a career to speak of, Shields came to seem almost touchingly tentative and lost, like a debutante doomed to wander an empty ballroom, occasionally tripping over the hem of her floor-length gown. Then she turned up as Matt LeBlanc's loco admirer on an episode of NBC's Friends last January. From this, apparently, was born the notion that Shields, now 31, could anchor her own sitcom, Suddenly Susan (NBC, Thursdays, 9:30 p.m.).
Susan, in which Shields plays a San Francisco columnist who writes about being single, is the top-rated new series of the season, consistently ranking in the Top 5. In other words, Shields currently enjoys a larger audience than Roseanne, Brett Butler or Ellen DeGeneres. But she is the same old Brookie, ravishing as ever but still in need of firm vocational guidance.
The ratings' triumph of Suddenly Susan can be attributed only to its berth. Any show that follows the enormously popular Seinfeld will start well. (NBC could leave the air dead for that half hour, and the next morning everyone would be talking about that new sitcom Snow.) Suddenly Susan is situation comedy at its most uninspired, except for the razzy performance of Kathy Griffin as Shields's coworker and the perversely unexpected presence of onetime Brat Packer Judd Nelson as her boss. As for Shields, she has learned to mock her coltish clunkiness and to make faces, although these do not for one second make her any less lovely. They are but ripples disturbing the surface of a clear lake.
I am grateful that, unlike unfunny sitcom stars Cybill Shepherd and Candice Bergen, Shields does not think the way to get a laugh is to bellow and bluster her way through her dialogue. Bergen sounds like a cathedral bell out of control: Drrrrrom! Drrrrrom! I prefer Shields's sweet vulnerability to their vulgar energy.
Her show is just as vulnerable. Should NBC ever move it out of that post-Seinfeld spot, Suddenly Susan will go just as quickly dead. And Shields? She will be adrift again, searching for a vehicle. I hope she steers clear of sitcoms.