No matter how much viewers loved Kramer on "Seinfeld," there's no reason to cheer for the new sitcom starring his alter ego.
In "The Michael Richards Show" (8 tonight, NBC), Richards looks like Kramer and acts like Kramer (the raised eyebrows, the jittery movement, the faux suave demeanor, etc.); in fact, his new character -- private detective Vic Nardozza --pretty much is Kramer with a job.
But he's been plopped into a show with four uninteresting supporting characters. None of them are funny or relateable the way the "Seinfeld" gang was. Not that there's anything wrong .... Wait, there is something wrong with that.
Blame the writing. Tonight's premiere was scripted by Gregg Kavet and Andy Robin, who created the series with Richards and Spike Feresten. All "Seinfeld" veterans, they've come up with a show that epitomizes past failures to follow in the footsteps of TV greats -- not as funny, not as interesting characters, not anywhere near as good. "The Michael Richards Show" is worse than "AfterMASH," but probably a smidgen better than "Joanie Loves Chachi."
It's no secret "The Michael Richards Show" presented NBC with, ahem, challenges, from the start. The first pilot was completely scrapped. The second pilot was deemed not strong enough for the show's premiere (it will air later, possibly next week). The third effort, airing tonight, is not the charm.
In the premiere, Nardozza plays a gigolo to ascertain whether a client's fiancee is cheating on him. Naturally, there are obstacles as Nardozza attempts to dance while suffering from a sore back. He also falls over a chair and gets pushed out a window.
Back at the office, boss Brady McKay (William Devane) struts around and does nothing, the only seemingly competent detective (Amy Farrington) concocts a radical alphabetizing filing system, and the agency's rookie (Tim Meadows) and elder (Bill Cobbs) spar.
You can't fault the supporting cast for this show's failure. Devane proved he could do a sitcom with ABC's "Phenom," Meadows was funny on "Saturday Night Live," and Cobbs, most recently seen on NBC's "The Others," has a long career, most notably on NBC's "I'll Fly Away." But they gel like Jell-O -- if you were to skip the stirring, hot water and refrigeration.
In a future episode, Nardozza teams with Stacey (Farrington) to investigate whether a candy company's CEO is using drugs. Nardozza is more interested in a candy bar the company no longer manufactures. Like "Seinfeld," some scenes are shot on location, not in front of the studio audience. It gives the episode a nice look, but production values can't make up for awful writing:
"I've found in my many years on the job that some people like it and others, well, let's just say, they don't like it," Cobbs says.
Ha, ha, ha, ha?
That's not to say there isn't anything redeeming about "The Michael Richards Show." Every now and then -- once in tonight's episode (that would be the "now") and again in a future installment (that's the "then") -- the writers come up with scraps of dialogue that bring to mind Seinfeldian humor.
"103.7 went Spanish," Nardozza says as he enters the detective agency after listening to his car radio. "That's my third pre-set wiped out by NAFTA."
That line, although probably funnier to viewers in Los Angeles and New York than those of us in flyover states, would work in a "Seinfeld" episode. Alas, scraps of "Seinfeld" aren't enough to justify "The Michael Richards Show."
"Frasier" (9 p.m., NBC)
I'm in the minority, but I didn't care for May's "Frasier" season finale.
The enthusiasm I had for seeing Niles (David Hyde Pierce) and Daphne (Jane Leeves) get together was dashed when Niles married Mel (Jane Adams) first. Only afterwards did he and Daphne bolt from her wedding in a Winnebago, leaving fiancee Donny (Saul Rubinek) standing at the alter. It was all too selfish and hurtful, too dismissive of the institution of marriage.
Tonight's season premiere picks up right where the finale left off, and it's clear Niles and Daphne will suffer consequences for their actions. It's difficult to describe much of the episode without giving away key plot developments.
Suffice it to say, people get hurt, there are recriminations, second thoughts, fingers pointed in blame and a few moments of happiness in the show's final minutes. There's also a wedding reception and a clever toast by Frasier (Kelsey Grammer).
This one-hour episode is not the finest "Frasier," but it never is when the network orders a one-hour episode. Sitcoms should be a half-hour. Most efforts to stretch them don't work.
In some ways, I'm impressed with the path the show's writers are taking. It will draw out the Niles-Daphne plot further with ensuing complications that should breed comedic moments.
But physical comedy is probably out -- actress Jane Leeves is noticeably pregnant, and no amount of loose clothing or carefully positioned props will hide that.
"Once and Again" (10 p.m., ABC)
When "Once and Again" began last season, I quickly tired of its horny divorced couple leads. In early episodes, the series was far too focused on divorced dad Rick Sammler (Billy Campbell) getting it on with separated mom Lily Manning (Emmy winner Sela Ward). Other viewers also expressed disappointment that the show became too much about copulation, not enough about coping.
After ignoring "Once and Again" most of last fall, I began to tune in again in the spring and was pleased to discover "Once and Again" taking the spotlight off Rick and Lily and shining it on the show's other characters: Rick's ex-wife, Karen (Susanna Thompson); Lily's sister, Judy (Marin Hinkle), and, most interestingly, Rick and Lily's children.
Credit producer Winnie Holzman, show runner of "My So-Called Life," for exploring the teen-age characters, particularly Lily's daughter, Grace (Julia Whelan); and Rick's daughter, Jessie (Evan Rachel Wood).
Jessie has a prominent role in tonight's "Once and Again" season premiere as she begins high school, longing for the simplest acknowledgment from Grace, who was in the same lonely spot a year ago. Now that she's a sophomore, Grace is reluctant to welcome Jessie, even though she surely recalls her own feelings of insecurity as a freshman.
The scenes tonight with the teen actors characterize "Once and Again" at its sensitive, revealing best. But the show stumbles back to where it began with Rick and Lily, who once again act irresponsibly and are forced to scramble to avoid being caught sleeping together by Lily's kids.
Luckily the adults of "Once and Again" get a better showcase next week as Lily's sister changes the name of her bookstore and begins a singles night, which brings up all sorts of issues: Lily's competitiveness and Judy's own unrealistic demands on potential suitors.
"There's all this love that no one ever receives," Judy says, "like letters without stamps or all the food that goes to waste that we just throw away. There are people going to bed hungry and lonely."
Reading that dialogue, it probably sounds gaggy, but in the context of "Once and Again," it represents the show at its emotionally honest best.