By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
Photo by Danny Feld
IT'S NOT OFTEN YOU SEE A PERFORMER REALLY have fun on a sitcom. But Second City alumnus Bonnie Hunt, who plays the host of a morning talk show on Life With Bonnie (ABC, Tuesdays, 9 p.m.), is obviously having a blast. And she should be, because, unlike many of the sitcoms out there, Life With Bonnieis actually funny. (The fact that the show's already been picked up for the rest of the season can't hurt, either.) The most heartening aspect of the program is that it's at its best when the performers are trying to live up to their own idea of what's amusing as opposed to just grinding out predictable jokes to keep the laugh track humming.
References to old movie greats are frequent -- Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Claudette Colbert -- and you can see why. The brand of sophisticated grown-up banter those actors perfected is what Hunt and her co-stars are trying to emulate. Amazingly, they often succeed, in a small-screen way. "Why don't you just write me a script?" Bonnie's husband (Mark Derwin) demands after she tells him exactly how she wants him to behave at a party they're going to. "I don't have time," she shoots back. But it's not particular lines that shine so much as the back-and-forth, the give-and-take, the flow.
As Bonnie Molloy, a working mother with a doctor husband, three young kids, a TV show and a comically inflated sense of her own importance (she interviews psychics, not heads of state), Hunt marries charm and intelligence in a role that's always threatening to break out into pure slapstick. (For all her witty one-liners, there's something about her that suggests an imminent pie fight.) The setup isn't particularly unusual, since there's a whole slew of family sitcoms (8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter, Still Standing, Family Affair. . .) on TV this fall. But Hunt, who co-writes and directs the show, is doing something different with the format. For one thing, she sings -- rather well, in fact -- if usually only to get herself through a tricky spot on her talk show. For another, she and her co-stars improvise much of the dialogue, and the sense of risk and spontaneity carries over into the more conventional scenes.
But what really distinguishes Life With Bonniefrom its competitors is that there's a natural-born comedian at the center of it. Yes, Bonnie's predictably kooky, quirky, wacky -- all par for the course in sitcom land -- but she manages to embody those qualities in an instinctive rather than a calculated way. Most sitcom laughter is generated by characters momentarily stepping outside their roles so they can insert comedy into every possible situation. On a recent episode of 8 Simple Rules, for instance, there's a scene in which John Ritter tries to comfort his daughter after she comes in dead last in an art competition at school. Even a student who got a dog to do his painting with its tail did better, she wails. "What kind of dog was it?" Ritter asks, suddenly more interested in the pooch than in his teenager. It's sort of funny, but to deliver the line, Ritter has to stop being the concerned father for a second so he can turn into a generic "Mr. Irony."
Life With Bonniedoesn't go in for that. Its most inspired scenes, which usually involve verbal sparring matches between Bonnie and her husband or take place on the set of Morning Chicago, succeed because the characters are really being themselves. When Bonnie drinks some cough mixture laced with codeine before going on air -- and then completely ignores her guest because she's suddenly realized how boring the woman is, and starts singing bawdy songs and telling dumb jokes instead of interviewing her -- nothing about the scene (which is mostly improvised) feels artificial. On the contrary, you start wishing Bonnie Hunt really did have a talk show.
TAKING PLACE IN A GLASS OFFICE TOWER THAT'S home to the fictional WGN network, Less Than Perfectcharts the unexpected rise of zaftig Claudia Casey (Sara Rue, Popular), a cheerful, ice cream-loving temp who emerges from the proletarian world of office supplies to land a permanent position as assistant to vain network anchorman Will Butler (Eric Roberts). The show was penned by Terri Minsky, a writer for Sex and the City, and initially I had high hopes for it. After all, if you're looking for a target for satire, you couldn't find anything much juicier than the evening news.
I should have known better. There's plenty of comedy on television, but satire is hard to come by. Less Than Perfect(which follows Life With Bonnieon ABC) is yet another sitcom about lovable, quirky Americans at work, obsessed with their love lives and figures. This one divides them into two classes. Down on the fourth floor (office supplies), where the women are plus-size and the men are dreamy nerds, all is warmth and generous fellow feeling. Upstairs, the women are shaped like reeds, the men are scheming nerds, and the emotional temperature is glacial. Occasionally, something funny happens. But most of the time the show feels strained and, in the end, pointless.
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