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Tuned In: 'Work With Me' doesn't work; 'Popular' will be with teens

Wednesday, September 29, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

"Work With Me" offers the perfect excuse to turn off the TV set and do the dishes. Or laundry. Or, heaven forbid, read a book.

If not for NBC's "The Mike O'Malley Show," CBS's "Work With Me" (8:30 tonight on KDKA) would be the least engaging of this fall's sorry sitcom crop.

"Ladies Man" and "Action" are more crude, but at least they generate cheap laughs. "Work With Me" struggles to make you grin.

It's a shame because the show stars two talented and underrated actors: Kevin Pollak and Nancy Travis play Jordan and Julie Better, husband and wife lawyers. He works for a high-profile Wall Street firm, she has her own practice ("More of a Sesame Street firm," she says) and accepts bananas as payment for drawing up one client's will.

When Jordan doesn't make partner, he quits his job and decides to work with his wife, which leads to friction that will presumably be the source of humor for as many weeks as this show lasts.

"Work With Me" is a situation in search of comedy. It tries to get by on sexual innuendo that's not particularly inventive or shocking. It fails to deliver laughs derived from character humor because the lead characters are ciphers.

Travis and Pollak are both talents deserving of success, but they're not believable as a couple. Part of that's due to the beauty and the beast syndrome (she'd really marry him?), but their comic styles don't mesh either. Plus, he's at his best playing supporting roles as a character actor.

The true testament to their mismatch can be found in the supporting players, who are more engaging in their brief screen time.

Sebastian (Ethan Embry) works as Jordan's assistant and Stacy (Emily Rutherford) works with Julie. The pair have been carrying on a clandestine romance for some time, and it's far more credible. Their characters are nuanced and offer more fertile ground for laughs. Frankly, I'd rather work with them.

"Popular" (9 tonight, WCWB)

The invasion of the under-aged continues with the latest high school drama on The WB.

If you hate this genre, don't bother with "Popular." But if you actually like spending time with teens or remember your own adolescence, "Popular" isn't the worst depiction of the not-so-wonderful years.

"Freaks and Geeks" remains the best high school show in this fall's class, but "Popular" held my attention better than next week's slow-moving aliens-as-teens "Roswell." Unlike "Freaks and Geeks," which examines two outcast groups and ignores the popular people, the glossier "Popular" pits the cool against the uncool.

Brooke McQueen (Leslie Bibb) is a poster girl for the popular crowd (she's a cheerleader who dates the football team quarterback).

Sam McPherson (Carly Pope) isn't necessarily unpopular, but she edits the school newspaper and hangs out with an overweight girl (Sara Rue), which in the cruel high school caste system puts her out of the running for prom queen.

Or as Brooke tells her boyfriend when he tries out for the school play, "We don't make homecoming court if you're a drama geek!"

Sad and painful, but true.

Some will object to this show because it doesn't immediately put obnoxious characters in their place and dares to say popular people have problems, too. But the antagonist is clearly Nicole (Tammy Lynn Michaels), Brooke's rhymes-with-witchy friend.

She's an over-the-top caricature and much of her dialogue makes clear one of "Popular's" most pervasive problems. It tries too hard to be cool with overly clever catch phrases ("eyesore candy," "Crystal Light clear," "Monica kneepads," etc.).

Another concern: The show embraces stereotypes -- the nerdy Asian student, the fey drama teacher, the hotheaded football coach. There's certainly some truth in stereotypes, but "Popular" goes overboard, presenting stereotypes to the exclusion of original characters.

"Popular" gets other aspects of teen life right, however. Brooke and Sam each thinks the other suffers from low self-esteem and at the same time accuse each other of thinking themselves superior (they're both right).

Sam's friend, Harrison (Christopher Gorham), was best friends with Brooke until she was embraced by the popular crowd, at which point she ditched him.

"Popular" previews tonight following the season premiere of "Dawson's Creek" and the story will continue in its regular time slot tomorrow at 8 p.m.

Teen shows are trend No. 1 this season, but another recurring theme is characters who vomit on camera. Unfortunately, "Popular" offers both teens and vomit in tomorrow's episode when a drunken teen barfs into the camera.

It's totally unnecessary, a gratuitous effort to shock, that teens will see for what it is. "Popular" won't live up to its title if it pulls too many tacky stunts like that.

Rob Owen can be reached at (412) 263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com.

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