New and Improv-ed

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 Bonnie is 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 Bonnie from 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 Bonnie doesn'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 Perfect charts 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 Bonnie on 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.

PUSH, NEVADA (ABC, THURSDAY, 9 P.M.), WHICH was produced by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, Chris Moore and Sean Bailey, just got the old heave-ho. Given its difficult time slot (opposite C.S.I.: Crime Scene Investigation on CBS), the series was probably doomed from the start. Or maybe people just weren't in the mood for yet another endlessly digressive, cryptic and quite possibly nonsensical 13-part show, particularly one so obviously modeled on the Collected Works of David Lynch. Anyway, a show whose protagonist, Jim Prufrock, takes his name from a T.S. Eliot poem is probably asking for trouble. "I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,/And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat and snicker," wrote Eliot in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Those lines look increasingly appropriate for a series that was greeted with great fanfare by The New York Times and has now been eulogized.

But let's remember that there were a few good things about Push. To start with, the hero, Prufrock (Derek Cecil), worked for the IRS, and given that practically everyone else on television between 9 and 10 p.m. is a criminal, cop, lawyer or doctor, a taxman at least brings a hint of the unexpected. Then there's the relationship between Prufrock and his secretary, Grace (Melora Walters, Magnolia), which had a sufficiently steady if low-wattage erotic buzz to it to make you want to hang around. They were the only honest characters in a show filled with duplicitous femmes fatales, larcenous police officers, depraved tattoo artists and all manner of grotesques, and you rooted for them instinctively.

Still, there were definitely some big problems, the major one being that the small-town gothic the show peddles is no longer fresh. In fact, it's beyond stale. The reign of Lynch and his imitators is finally over. It was fun while it lasted, but the mannerism has sucked out the mystery. Push, Nevada billed itself as "interactive," with a million dollars to be won by the first viewer to spot all the clues leading to the solution of the puzzle, but obviously, given the dismal ratings, a million dollars wasn't enough to get people through it.


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