In this era of diminished sitcom expectations, a time when NBC can't string together four decent comedies on Thursday night, CBS's hour of "Bette" and "Welcome to New York" pleasantly surprises.
Bette Midler stars in "Bette" as herself, or at least an exaggerated version of herself. The Bette in "Bette" is a chow hound, eager to stuff her mouth with Cheetos one minute, then desperate to work off the calories moments later.
"I look like the last 20 minutes of 'For the Boys,' " Midler says after an exhausting concert performance.
When her husband (Kevin Dunn) falls asleep before she can get into her "trampy" negligee, Midler makes a beeline for the plastic surgeon, claiming, "It's an emergency, a Cher-size emergency!"
Her home life includes attempts to impress her teen-age daughter (cute Lindsay Lohan in the pilot; Marina Malota takes over the role in episode No. 3) by desperately acting young. Sadly, her effort to affect a Valley Girl accent comes out more Minnesotan.
"Bette" also stars the always winning Joanna Gleason ("Into the Woods" on Broadway, "Love & War" on CBS) as Connie, Midler's manager.
James Dreyfus appears as Mid-ler's piano accompanist, Oscar, who plays for Midler in tonight's best scene. Watch how she reinterprets Kid Rock's "Bawitdaba."
In "Bette," Midler shows, no matter what her ego, she's most interested in getting laughs. Self-deprecating jokes about having her own TV series prove she's willing to make viewers chuckle at her own expense. But it's the physical comedy she performs, especially in a scene with a torture chamber-like piece of exercise equipment, that brings to mind Lucille Ball in "I Love Lucy."
Midler playing Midler is funny in tonight's pilot, but will it be funny on a weekly basis? I tend to think it will get old. Quick. Plus, once the writers blaze through the Midler references -- "The Rose," her appearance on "Seinfeld" and her gay fans all get mentioned tonight -- I wonder how much humor will remain.
Those concerns can wait until future episodes. At least for tonight, "Bette" is a best bet.
'Welcome to New York'
"Bette" generated the most pre-premiere publicity, but "Welcome to New York" may be better suited to a long run. Tonight's premiere only merits infrequent guffaws, but a gentle humor runs through "Welcome to New York" that makes it easy to like.
Christine Baranski ("Cybill") stars as Marsha Bickner, the hard-bitten executive producer of "A.M. New York," a Manhattan morning show. She hires honest, nice-guy Indiana weatherman Jim Gaffigan (played by stand-up comedian Jim Gaffigan), who doesn't fit in with Bickner's snooty New York scene. She objects when he proposes wearing a brown suit.
"People in New York don't wear brown," she huffs. "We wear black, and that's only until something darker comes along."
That's smart, telling comedy, but it's also an acquired taste.
"Welcome to New York," like NBC's "Ed," is produced by David Letterman's Worldwide Pants. Both series succeed by offering low-key laughs. Both are funny, just not riotously hilarious. It's more of a thinking kind of humor.
Rocky Carroll ("Chicago Hope") stars as morning show anchor Adrian Spencer, who could be just another Ted Baxter knock-off. But the writers put enough of a spin on the character to make him stand out. Adrian isn't just an arrogant fool, he's a paranoid arrogant fool who worries that he and Jim wear the same type of glasses.
The only resounding false note in "Welcome to New York" is the casting of Sara Gilbert as Bickner's assistant, Amy. It's not entirely clear in tonight's episode whether Amy is smart or dumb, but when she seems dumb, Gilbert seems wrong for the part. She's so identified as smart, smart aleck Darlene Conner on "Roseanne," it's hard to see her playing a dim bulb (if that's ultimately what Amy is).
"Welcome to New York" was originally intended to be a starring vehicle for Gaffigan, but when Baranski came aboard, she got the lead role and an executive producer credit. Who knows whether that will cause creative friction in the future, but the "Welcome to New York" premise at least offers opportunities for plenty of comical friction between Gaffigan's Midwestern folksiness and Baranski's urban ennui.
Rob Owen can be reached at 412-263-2582 or email@example.com. Post questions or comments about TV to www.post-gazette.com/tv under PG Online Talk.