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Tv Review: Wanda Sykes gets her own show on Fox

Sunday, March 23, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

In TV shows and movies, there's a tendency to applaud people who speak their minds and take no guff. They're brutally honest, but when surrounded by mealy-mouthed politicos and carefully coifed blowhards, the audience is expected to put the loose-lipped anarchist up on a pedestal.

"Wanda at Large"

When: 9:30 p.m. Wednesday on Fox.

Starring: Wanda Sykes.

Listings Change

This week digital cable channel Discovery Civilization becomes Discovery Times. The prime-time grids have been changed to reflect that.

So it is with Fox's "Wanda at Large," premiering Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. Comedian Wanda Sykes stars as a squawky-voiced, opinionated woman who lands a job on a public affairs talk show because the station manager, Roger (Jason Kravits), is so impressed with her honesty at a party.

How you feel about Wanda won't necessarily dictate how you feel about "Wanda at Large." Sykes is a stitch in person, doing stand-up or on "Curb Your Enthusiasm." But in "Wanda at Large," she comes across as obnoxious and needlessly crude. In three episodes sent to critics for review, the word "ass" -- and not in terms of a donkey -- gets used four times.

"I don't trust the stock market," she says. "Put your money in weed. The price of weed never go down."

Beyond the rising level of crudity, "Wanda at Large" suffers from being all over the place. There's Wanda at the TV station, Wanda doing man on the street interviews, Wanda at home in the same apartment building as her widowed sister-in-law (Tammy Lauren), niece and nephew. And then there are the out-of-nowhere, once-an-episode dream sequences, as if they were "Ally McBeal" leftovers just begging to be used.

Phil Morris, who played Jackie Chiles on "Seinfeld" and hoped to star in his own series as that character (it never happened), plays Bradley, Wanda's conservative rival on the public affairs show. He and Wanda have a nice give-and-take chemistry and they're on an even playing field when it comes to insults.

"Cologne is supposed to attract women, not chloroform them," she tells him.

The show's strongest element is the Wanda interview segments, but they too often come off seeming as scripted as they are. Other times, they're pretty funny. In one, she talks about reparations for slavery and, carrying a calculator, approaches a white man on the street.

"Hi, I'm black, you owe me 15 dollars and 13 cents," she tells him.

At a January press conference in Hollywood, Sykes said her goal is to move toward interview segments with real people as opposed to actors.

"It's so funny; in this town, though, it's hard to find real people," she said. "Really, I mean, everybody, they pull out some balls, start juggling or something. Everybody has an act, so it's kind of hard."

Sykes is at her funniest when she bites the hand that feeds her, but that sort of humor is more effective in the real world than in a fictional context. At the same Fox press conference, she said she'd rather be on UPN than Fox because of "Joe Millionaire."

"I just hate seeing dumb women, and then the guy is retarded because he's starting to really believe it's his money. What the [expletive] is that? 'Oh, I got to find a girl who really likes me for me and not for my money.' You're broke, you have no money. Dummy."

Sykes said she was pitched various premises for a sitcom, including one called "Loquetia."

"I hung up after that," she said. "I don't know what the plot of it was, but I was like, 'I'm not playing anybody named Loquetia. I don't care if she cures cancer, I'm not playing Loquetia."

Bruce Helford, executive producer of "The Drew Carey Show," is also overseeing "Wanda at Large." His first idea for a Sykes-starring comedy cast her as a judge.

"We realized that if she was a TV judge, then everything she said was basically for entertainment and had no real weight to it," Helford said. "And if she was a real judge, you couldn't talk like Wanda does and be a judge."

The final concept for "Wanda at Large" mirrors her own life getting a job as a field correspondent on "Inside the NFL" after impressing an executive at a party.

Whatever your take on "Wanda at Large," Sykes can rarely be accused of trying to censor herself. She did some writing for the 74th Academy Awards, hosted by Whoopi Goldberg, but none of her jokes were used.

"It was great working with Whoopi, but it's the Oscars. It's not like the MTV Awards or anything like that, where you can just rip into people who are in the room. It's very glamorous and dignified and that's just not me."

Truer words ...

You can reach Rob Owen at 412-263-2582 orrowen@post-gazette.com . Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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