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London Calling

Interviewed for A&E‘s two-hour documentary valentine to the Big Apple, New York at the Movies, director Peter Bogdanovich (doing a fair imitation of Alfred Hitchcock) noted that the Master was a firm believer in putting tourist sites in films. If you’re going to film New York, his thinking went, make sure you get shots of the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building, because those are the symbols that make New York what it is.

The creators of The American Embassy (Fox, Mondays), the new series set in London, appear to have taken this credo to heart. (But if you‘re looking for any other Hitchcockian touches, forget it.) There’s barely an outdoor shot without Big Ben or a red telephone booth in the background. A good thing too, because, what with all these extroverted Americans all over the place, viewers might otherwise fail to realize the show was taking place in London at all. The writers are so desperate to cram each minute of the show with incident, plausible or not, that the spirit of place rarely gets a look in. Which is a pity, because few television shows are set abroad and there‘s a tremendous opportunity here to explore new territory. ”In London I could meet anyone, do anything, go anywhere,“ mused the hero of Paul Theroux’s The London Embassy, a series of linked short stories about an American diplomat in London published in 1983. ”It was the center of the civilized world, the best place in Europe, the last habitable big city. It was the first city Americans thought of traveling to -- funny, friendly, and undemanding; it was every English speaker‘s spiritual home. I had been intending to come here as long as I could remember.“

Emma Brody, the 29-year-old vice consul from Toledo, Ohio, played by Arija Bareikis, doesn’t exude the same curiosity. Her reasons for taking the job in London are personal: To get away from an overbearing mother and a cheating fiance. Thus, although the airline loses her luggage, her emotional baggage remains strapped to her psyche. Emma, it seems, is a person who is always running -- she dreams about running -- but whether she is running toward or away from something is unclear. In the meantime, she starts work at the embassy, where the Americans are hunkered down, fighting off any possible foreign influence on their character as desperately as a bunch of Evelyn Waugh characters stranded in California.

Domestically, Emma‘s situation is sitcom-ready. Her next-door neighbor is a transvestite rock singer, and her roommate is a multi-orgasmic sex diva. Wearing earplugs against the groans and shrieks of the latter, Emma writes e-mail letters to her sister back home while plopped prettily at her laptop in a tank top. There’s certainly a lot to write about. There‘s her near-entry into the Mile High Club, for instance, on the plane coming over to London; the American who’s broke and wants a free ticket home and protests his plight by sitting naked in the embassy rotunda; the British Prince Charming who lives in a palace and claims to be in love with her; animal-rights protesters; and an American (Emma‘s fiance, come to England to win her back) who’s arrested for driving on the wrong side of the road.

The American Embassy is mostly played for laughs, except when it isn‘t. Then it becomes Deeply Serious. The most serious moment so far came at the end of the first episode, when terrorists exploded a bomb outside the embassy and the screen was suddenly full of actors pretending to be dead. This outbreak of tragedy felt distinctly unearned. Things were almost equally somber when, in episode two, Emma turned down an Algerian student’s application for a visa to study in the U.S. Filled with rage, the Algerian began shouting and banging his fists against the glass partition and generally carrying on like someone who, if he hadn‘t planned on blowing things up initially, was ready to start doing so now. Needless to say, Emma was tortured by the thought that she might have committed the sin of racial profiling, and the decision to bar the Algerian from the U.S. was eventually reversed. With her conscience clear, Emma could look at herself in the mirror again. The question is, will anyone want to look at her on the screen?

In an upcoming episode from his new comedy series, Andy Richter Controls the Universe (Fox, Tuesdays), Andy Richter has his own Deeply Serious moment when the girl of his dreams turns out to have an alarming habit of making derogatory remarks about Jews. Despite all the great sex they’ve been having, Andy decides he has to break up with her. At least part of him does. ”All people are beautiful,“ he informs her solemnly, ”a glorious rainbow of color and ideas, a living stained-glass window of diversity, and because you can‘t see that, we can never be together.“ Watching television, one sometimes has the impression that the Ten Commandments have been replaced by a single, all-encompassing commandment: Thou shalt not profile. Not judging people for the wrong reasons is a good thing to be serious about, but it would be nice if script writers could find a couple of other things to be serious about as well.

I enjoyed Richter when he was Conan O’Brien‘s sidekick, and his new show, in which he plays a Walter Mitty--ish technical writer whose fantasy life often overwhelms his real life, is likable and quite funny in places, though never quite as funny as you want it to be. The show’s gimmick is that it reveals what Andy wishes he‘d done in a given situation as well as what he actually did. (His speech to the anti-Semite is a fantasy; in reality, he pretends he has an appointment and dashes from her bedroom in his underwear.) So if Andy’s saying good morning to the pretty new receptionist, Wendy (Irene Molloy), we first get a slew of imaginary sequences (Andy arriving in a coat of live puppy dogs or dancing like Fred Astaire) before we get the real one, in which the nervous copywriter screws up his opening line by saying ”Hi are you?“ instead of ”How are you?“ The problem is that the fantasy scenes are too cutesy and the reality too humdrum for the show to hold your interest for long. Since he‘s never going to be a traditional leading man, Richter is going to have to be an even more unconventional one if his show is going to succeed.

And now for something completely . . . successful. Last week’s (repeat) episode of The Bernie Mac Show (Fox, Wednesdays), in which Bernie had to get the kids ready for their first day at school, was as funny as the show usually is. Which is to say, very funny. Here is a sitcom with the natural ease and authority that goes with having a great premise, a dynamite star, a well-written script, inventive visuals, topnotch music and a terrific supporting cast. In short, it‘s a show that has it all and one that any new comedies will have to measure themselves against.

As an uncle reluctantly bringing up his sister’s children, and a firm believer in the tough-love approach to child rearing, Bernie Mac plays like a super-cool Jackie Gleason or Groucho Marx in a dashiki. He‘s a reactionary, which is good, because childhood has been so thoroughly colonized by the therapy industry that even a mildly common-sensical stance is not only bracing but funny. Thus some of the best scenes in the episode come in flashbacks showing Bernie and wife Wanda checking out a pre-school for 5-year-old Bryanna and a Catholic school for 8-year-old Jordan. The pre-school is a ”child-centric,“ ”gender-neutral“ touchy-feely never-never land in which the word teach has been replaced with the word reach, as in reaching out to children rather than teaching them. The Catholic school where Bernie and Wanda take Jordan for an interview with the school’s ”Dean of Discipline,“ the terrifying, chain-smoking Father Cronin, is a rather different proposition. ”So, do you guys teach?“ asks Bernie, who‘s beginning to wonder if anyone does that anymore. ”Of course we teach, what the hell kind of question is that?“ Father Cronin retorts in his thick Irish brogue. Then, in answer to a question from Wanda, he explains that the only kind of children’s ”self-expression“ he‘s interested in is in children learning to do what they’re told.

Bernie, of course, is delighted -- here at last is a man on the same wavelength -- and beams with pleasure even when Cronin compares schoolchildren unfavorably to lepers. ”Amen,“ Bernie pronounces loudly. ”We‘ll have none of that shoutin’ here,“ the priest shoots back in a delicious bit of Catholic-vs.-Southern-Baptist comedy. Approaching the end of its first season, Bernie Mac already looks like a classic.