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TV Reviews: Among new series, 'Happy Family' and 'Jake' show promise

Tuesday, September 09, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Broad, outrageous humor is tricky business.

 
 
"Whoopi"

When: 8 tonight on NBC.

Starring: Whoopi Goldberg

   
 

Rooted in amiable characters -- even enjoyable scoundrels -- it can work well, as it did for a couple of seasons on NBC's "3rd Rock From the Sun." But when the characters are annoying and boorish, there's little reason to stay tuned.

So it is with NBC's "Whoopi," the first new fall comedy to premiere and possibly one of the first to be canceled. Bad buzz alone won't doom a series, but once people get a look at this comedy ...

Whoopi Goldberg stars as Mavis Rae, a one-hit-wonder singer turned owner of a small Manhattan hotel. She's brash, sassy and unapologetically politically incorrect.

"You know, secondhand smoke kills," a guest tells Mavis as she smokes at the front desk.

"So do I," she replies.

Sometimes rude is funny, but when coupled with dumb -- Mavis hears someone is "ebullient" and jokes that they have a disease called "ebulia" -- it's not an attractive mix.

The hotel's handyman, Nasim (Omid Djalili), spends the first two episodes obsessing angrily about how Americans can't tell the difference between Arabs and Persians.

"Your people do scare me," Mavis tells Nasim. "I see three or four of you guys on an airplane, I'm off."

Saying what others won't is a hallmark of TV comedy, but it needs to be accompanied by characters, not caricatures.

Too many in the "Whoopi" cast are the latter. Mavis' brother, Courtney (Wren T. Brown), is a Buppie. Mavis teases him regularly about his lack of blackness. She also sneers at his white girlfriend, Rita (Elizabeth Regen), who acts black.

Rita teaches Courtney to pronounce "gangsters" correctly by saying, "gangstas."

Stereotypes are on display throughout "Whoopi," probably in an effort to poke fun at them. But does America really want to watch a sitcom about terrorism, which the second episode dwells on after Mavis finds an unaccompanied briefcase in the lobby? If it were inventive, maybe, but as it is, the episode is predictable, cliched sitcom pablum.

That, rather than politically incorrect humor, is what takes the fun out of "Whoopi."

'Happy Family'

 
 
"Happy Family"

When: 8:30 tonight on NBC.

Starring: Christine Baranski

   
 

This sitcom's title is intended to be ironic, but "Amusing Family" is more apt. It doesn't provoke a laugh-out-loud reaction -- how could it when NBC ruined every funny twist by giving them away in summer promos? -- but it will make you smile and admire the phenomenal talents of John Larroquette and Christine Baranski.

Larroquette and Baranski play Peter and Annie Brennan, parents of three grown children who won't leave the nest. Oldest son Todd (Jeff Davis) is about to disappoint his father, lovelorn Sara (Melanie Paxson) just wants someone to talk to besides her pet bird, and dim-bulb Tim (Tyler Francavilla) flunks out of junior college and then shacks up with a neighbor.

"I'm beginning to think we didn't do a very good job," Annie declares at the end of tonight's premiere. It's not the dialogue that sells that line, but Baranski's delivery. That's the case throughout the two episodes of "Happy Family" made available for review. The leads are better than their material, and the premise begins to feel uncomfortably thin by the second episode.

'Enterprise'

 
 
"Enterprise"

When: 8 p.m. tomorrow on UPN.

Starring: Scott Bakula

   
 

Well, at least it's less boring.

This revamped "Star Trek" series takes on a more militaristic tone in the new season as the Enterprise crew sets out to find an alien planet and destroy its weapon of mass destruction before the aliens annihilate Earth.

"We don't have the luxury of being safe or cautious anymore," barks Capt. Archer (Scott Bakula), trying to prove his newfound sense of purpose.

This episode moves at a faster pace than most "Enterprise" episodes, but it does trip over itself, first with an alien as incomprehensible as Ozzy Osbourne and then with another ridiculous scene of mock seduction between T'Pol (Jolene Blalock)and Trip (Connor Trinneer).

"The neural nodes that need to be stimulated are difficult to reach," T'Pol says in her best Vulcan dirty talk voice before disrobing and cupping her breasts. The hottie alien does benefit from a less severe hair style this season and she shows off two new outfits -- one orange, one baby blue -- that look even more like pajamas than traditional "Star Trek" uniforms.

'Jake 2.0'

 
 
"Jake 2.0"

When: 9 p.m. tomorrow on UPN.

Starring: Christopher Gorham

   
 

This "Six Million Dollar Man" revamp finds young computer technician Jake Foley (Christopher Gorham) fixing computers for the National Security Agency and envying a job in special ops.

He gets his wish after being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Shattered glass cuts his skin and allows nanotechnology in the form of liquid metal to seep into his blood stream. Voila, Jake gets enhanced hearing, increased strength and way-cool "macro-vision" (basically his vision zooms in like a 35mm camera).

At first, he's jazzed to have these powers, but when his college friend/unrequited love Sarah (Marina Black) is kidnapped, he becomes a more reluctant hero.

Although Jake strikes out with Sarah in tomorrow's premiere, he does have nice chemistry with an NSA scientist (Keegan Connor Tracy, "Beggars & Choosers"), which could bode well for his romantic life.

Gorham makes an extremely likable geek and is a smart choice for the lead. The show itself isn't at all innovative, but it is competently done. With David Greenwalt ("Angel," "Profit," "Miracles") on board as an executive producer, "Jake" could become greater than the sum of its used parts.


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

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