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'Thanks' makes light of Pilgrims' progress

Sunday, August 01, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

You've got to give CBS credit for trying.

In this era of bland, lookalike sitcoms, anything different is welcome.

But different doesn't automatically mean good.

"Thanks," a new sitcom about pilgrims set in 1621 Plymouth, Mass., is certainly different, but not altogether good. There are chuckles here and there, but nothing as clever as one would hope.



When: 8:30 p.m. tomorrow on CBS.

Starring: Tim Dutton, Kirsten Nelson, Cloris Leachman.


At least viewers can give thanks this period sitcom won't offend like UPN's "Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer." "Pfeiffer," about a black butler in Abraham Lincoln's White House, was met with howls of protest from activists and indifference from most viewers when it premiered last fall.

Maybe a few New Englanders will get upset at the depiction of Plymouth's reverend and his preaching, which consists of pointing at the congregation and screaming, "Fornicators! You're all damned!" For the most part, "Thanks" is an innocuous show.

Tim Dutton stars as James Winthrop, one of the first fathers in the New World. In the tradition of recent sitcom dads, James is bumbling, but well-meaning and eager to embrace America.

"Ah, America the beautiful," he proclaims.

"You've got to start writing these things down," says his encouraging wife, Polly (Kirsten Nelson).

They've come to the New World with their kids, boy-crazy Abigail (Erika Christensen), too-smart-for-her-own-good Elizabeth (Amy Centner) and forgetful son William (Andrew Ducote). Then there's James' mother (Cloris Leachman), an elderly woman with a healthy libido, especially when it comes to "sweaty pirates."

As you'd expect, there are plenty of jokes about the ethos of the pilgrim times. When inventive Elizabeth suggests one day her mother could abandon cooking over the open flame for "some kind of contained unit, made of metal perhaps," Abigail points at her sister accusingly and says, "She's a witch!"

"Now Abigail," James says. "That was funny the first time, but not every puritan has your sense of humor, or any sense of humor at all really."

It's surprising Leachman, the only brand-name star in the cast, wasn't given more to do in this first episode. Perhaps that will change in future episodes.

Jim Rash plays Cotton, another character who gets little air time in the pilot. Cotton is James' best friend, and the village idiot.

For my money though, a more effective comedy character is a woman who brings chicken bones back to James' store when it opens in the spring and tries to get a refund because the chicken died. "I have a receipt," she says.

As Polly, Kirsten Nelson brought to mind another actress from sitcoms past. After racking my brain, I finally figured it out. Her mannerisms and way of speaking owe a debt to Alison LaPlaca, who starred in "Duet."

The guest cast in "Thanks" also proves memorable, mostly because you've seen so many of them in other shows before:

Jane Carr, the divorce support group leader from "Dear John," plays a leach-prescribing dentist's assistant.

Keith Szarabajka, who aged backwards in the CBS 1991 Stephen King summer series "Golden Years," plays Rev. Goodacre.

And in the strangest bit of casting, John Fleck (Daniel Benzali's assistant on "Murder One") plays the constable. Why is this strange? Because Fleck also appeared in the "Desmond Pfeiffer" pilot as a racist White House administrator. It's just weird the same actor appeared in the past two pilots for period comedies.

"Thanks" was created by Phoef Sutton (an executive producer on "Cheers") and Mark Legan ("Grace Under Fire") and it's an amusing, if slight diversion. "Thanks" is no turkey, but it's not a thanksgiving feast either.

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