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Tuned In: Lots to like about two new ABC sitcoms

Tuesday, March 27, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

In ABC's "What About Joan," Joan Cusack rages funny, she hurts funny, she embarrasses funny, she exasperates funny, she even extinguishes candles funny. And all the while she's cute and lovable and you just want to give her a big hug. You may want to hug the show, too. And ABC for putting it on.

"What About Joan" is the easiest-to-love sitcom of the season. There will be some curmudgeons who won't like Cusack's cute-as-a-button persona. Lou Grants of the world may growl, "I hate spunk," which Cusack has in spades. Phooey on them.

 
 
"What About Joan"
When: 9:30 tonight on ABC.

Starring: Joan Cusack, Kyle Chandler.

   
 

Cusack plays Joan Gallagher, a Chicago high school teacher who is dating nice-guy banker Jake (Kyle Chandler). He's straight-laced -- not in a boring way, but in a gentlemanly way.

She, on the other hand, is a whirling dervish of nerves and contorted facial expressions. Her shyness and modesty is probably a little overdone in tonight's premiere and too much of it could grow tiresome on a weekly basis, but my bet is producers will tone it down some.

Tonight, on only their ninth date, Jake proposes marriage, sending Joan into a tizzy.

"My answer is: Two days ago I thought it was premature to put you on my speed dial," Joan says.

She has a kaffeeklatch of girlfriends from whom she seeks counsel. These scenes are a bit like those with Geena Davis' buddies in "The Geena Davis Show" (with Donna Murphy playing a less one-note version of the Mimi Rogers character from Davis' show), but the characters here are funnier and the writing is far superior.

"I'm not the kind of girl that sweeps guys off their feet," Joan says. "I'm the low maintenance, dependable one that guys call after they've gotten dumped by the girl that's swept them off their feet."

"What About Joan" was created by former NPR essayist Gwen Macsai and is executive produced by James L. Brooks, who began his career in television ("The Mary Tyler Moore Show") and continues to develop TV shows (including "The Simpsons") while making hit movies ("Broadcast News," "As Good As It Gets").

"What About Joan" has a good sense of its lead character, but the supporting cast is not quite up to muster. Murphy's friend-of-Joan psychiatrist is pointlessly brittle tonight (she softens next week), while fellow teachers Betsy (Jessica Hecht) and Mark (Wallace Langham) are just weirdo caricatures. Thankfully, student teacher Alice (Kellie Williams) brings some much needed sanity to Joan's frequently zany life.

ABC has wisely put "What About Joan" on at 9:30, a good move since there is some sex talk in the first two episodes (a lot more next week). But it's comparatively tame for prime time and infinitely more clever than what we usually hear.

Three cheers for "Joan" -- let's hope ABC can build this sitcom into the long-lasting hit it deserves to become.

"My Wife and Kids" (8 p.m. tomorrow, ABC)

The family sitcom has remained dormant since "Home Improvement" went off the air two years ago, but its successor has finally arrived. Damon Wayans stars in "My Wife and Kids," an amiable comedy children and parents will mostly feel comfortable watching together.

"My Wife and Kids" almost channels the spirit of the old "Cosby Show," particularly in a scene between father Michael (Wayans) and son Junior (George O. Gore II), who explains he wants to attend a rap concert because he's "trying to keep it real."

 
 
"My Wife and Kids"
When: 8 p.m. tomorrow on ABC.

Starring: Damon Wayans, Tisha Campbell-Martin.

   
 

"Let me tell you something, son," Michael begins. "We live out in the suburb, there's no 'hood out here. You come from the mean streets of Stamford, Conn."

It's cute without being cloying, edgy without being offensive. And surprisingly, it's traditional in a "Father Knows Best" way. Wayans' Michael makes no bones about his discomfort with his wife's desire to work outside the home.

"What do I have to do to get you to take my job more seriously?" Janet (Tisha Campbell-Martin) asks.

"Quit it," Michael responds.

Don't misunderstand: He doesn't prevent her from working and ultimately he supports her, but he acknowledges that his primal instinct is to have her stay home with the kids while he works to support them. Some viewers might not appreciate that attitude, but it's honest.

Last spring comedian-actor D.L. Hughley complained Wayans' new sitcom was a rip-off of "The Hughleys," which was dropped by ABC and picked up by UPN. Both shows feature black families living in predominantly white suburbs, but Hughley's show was more about race. In its first two episodes, the Wayans show spends little time dealing with race and class; it's all about the everyday problems of family life.

Both episodes of "My Wife and Kids" sent for preview include nice heart-to-heart conversations between Michael and his children ("Don't live your life for anybody else," Michael tells his daughter who's concerned with acceptance among her peers). That makes this sitcom a rare oasis in the sex-obsessed prime-time landscape


You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.



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