TV comedy, if you factor out variety shows (as history already has) and funny home videos, may be divided, broadly speaking, into vehicles (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Home Improvement, Pauly) and ensemble pieces (M*A*S*H, Cheers, That ‘70s Show). Where ensemble pieces begin with an idea (a subject, a setting, a situation), vehicles, which turn into ensemble pieces if they go on long enough, start with stars — usually standup comedians or movie actors looking for a little geographical stability, a weekly paycheck and an annuity of residuals. Which is why they often seem to have no ideas. To not be about anything. They are machines for transporting a celebrity to you.
There is nothing much to the premise of The Geena Davis Show — in vehicular terms, it’s an old Econoline van, roomy and efficient and stylistically neutral. The gist: After a whirlwind courtship, feisty sexy single career gal moves in with fiance, his teenage son, little girl and wise housekeeper, and must learn stepparenting skills. With its carefully calibrated balance of wacky co-workers, physically appropriate love interest, cute but not always lovable kids and acerbic domestic, it might have been coughed up by computer. (Who knows what dark machines may be humming in the deep recesses of the television networks?) Not that the computer did a crap job, exactly. As unprepossessing as it is, the show at least lets Davis — who returns from Cutthroat Island to a stage life where she gets to resemble a real person more than an action figure — be charming and excitable; it supplies her with decent dialogue; it does not throw too many stones in her way. (When the show drifts away from her, inexplicably — as when it follows pal Mimi Rogers and colleague Kim Coles to a celibacy workshop — it is no use at all.) Whether arguing with boyfriend Peter Horton or crawling around on the floor playing dolls, she‘s focused and musical and at 43 possibly the hottest chick on TV. The series acknowledges this — her long legs are all over the place, occasioning popeyed stares from future stepson John Francis Daley, the first alumnus of Freaks & Geeks to resurface on the small screen, and it is strange to see him being someone other than Sam Weir, but there he is, being sitcomical. Makenzie Vega is his little sister, and when she’s not being ”cute,“ she‘s pretty cute. Horton, who was in thirtysomething many long years ago and Brimstone more recently, has so far functioned mostly as a straight man, but if the show sticks around I’m sure he‘ll make the writers give him something to do.
Welcome to New York began as a vehicle for standup comic Jim Gaffigan, but morphed before its premiere into a vehicle for 11th-hour hire Christine Baranski, who was Maryann on Cybill, you will of course recall. Strictly speaking, it’s a vehicle built for two, but Baranski‘s is the top billing, and she gets an executive producer’s credit to Gaffigan‘s plain old producer’s credit. I imagine there are Jim Gaffigan fans mightily vexed by his demotion — the series was originally called Gaffigan — and he certainly is an enjoyably goofy actor, but one can see how there wouldn‘t have been much of a show here without Baranski or someone like her to set off the pastiness of his character. As it has all worked out after the fiddling and refiguring, Baranski plays the producer of a New York City morning show, and Gaffigan (named Jim Gaffigan in an apparent vehicular holdover) the corn-fed Indiana weather man she has just hired; he is trusting and nice clean through, and she is cool and patrician but needy underneath. Baranski is quieter here and less of a caricature than she was in Cybill, and has a light way with a line like ”I saw half of it“ (when asked if she’s seen Cats) that is extremely pleasurable. There is, for a change, no romantic tension between the principals, and no sign there will be. (Although they made out in the first episode, they were drunk at the time and properly horrified afterward.) The show is funny enough often enough that you won‘t notice the laugh track — it’s only on the shows where the jokes aren‘t funny that you do — and this has no little bit to do with the supporting cast, which includes Chicago Hope alumnus Rocky Carroll as the morning show’s territorial anchor, and Sara Gilbert (another late, sensible addition) as Baranski‘s caustic, laconic assistant, essentially Roseanne’s Darlene all grown up. And if her return to television does not gladden your heart, we can part company right here.
Bette Midler is the star driving the vehicle called Bette, and she‘s pedaling hard to make it go. I like Midler — she’s an Ethel Merman for our times. Brassy is the good old word for her. She paints in broad strokes, and is not above grabbing her tits for a laugh. And indeed, her ample bosom gets a lot of play in this, her entree into series television. Midler plays ”herself“ here, the way Jack Benny did on his old show, with self-deflating references to her own career, and celebrity cameos (Danny DeVito, Dolly Parton) to make it all look like real Hollywood — but these are not so much in the subversive vein of Larry Sanders as they are in the mode of Lucy Ricardo accosting William Holden at the Brown Derby. As Midler‘s manager pal, Joanna Gleason, whom it is always nice to see, plays Ethel to her Lucy, letting loyalty override common sense. As in the star’s real life, there are also a husband (Kevin Dunn), a daughter (Marina Malota) and an accompanist (James Dreyfus), and they are all fine. The show is funny in bits and in other bits it is not, and on the whole one wishes it were a little funnier a little more often, for Midler‘s sake as well as ours.
As pleasant company as these players are, the series they’ve landed in seem weightless and unnecessary. More engaging, though far from perfect, is That‘s Life (the imperfections begin with the meaningless title), which stars Heather Paige Kent (Jenny, Stark Raving Mad) as a Jersey girl who ditches her mook fiance in favor of college, against the advice of her family and friends. Though it batters its better self with improbabilities and cliches and a tendency to get icky-sentimental in the clinches, it is not without its affecting moments and clever conceits (Kent and pop Paul Sorvino have their heart-to-hearts while she passes through the New Jersey Turnpike toll booth where he works; she’s a bartender who does all the talking, the better to narrate by), and the hour passes happily.
The nominal heart of the show itself, the back-to-school stuff and the will toward self-improvement, we have met elsewhere; recently, it formed the precise substance of Pearl, Rhea Perlman‘s failed comedy of a few seasons back, down to the protagonist’s prickly relations with a snootyscary English professor (which is not to say, in this case, a professor of English), played there by Malcolm McDowell and here by Peter Firth, a long way from the days he was getting naked as the young star of Equus. Firth overacts extravagantly, though Sorvino and Ellen Burstyn (of all people) as her parents, and Kevin Dillon as her brother, and much of the rest of the cast chew their share of scenery. The whole show‘s a little overripe, with its Italian cheese-pop and sensitive-rock sounds clogging the soundtrack, and its Sopranos-lite north Jersey dialect — it’s friggin‘ this and friggin’ that — but it works, largely because Kent keeps it tethered to recognizable ordinary life. Though I found her at first notably less convincing than Debi Mazar — back on TV in a best-friend supporting role after her own shot at top-lining Temporarily Yours (with Bette‘s Joanna Gleason) and focused to the tips of her painted fingernails — I am convinced now. ”You’re real. You‘re not one of these passionless clones,“ a smitten young classmate told her a couple of weeks back, and though he didn’t seem real at all, this sensitive guitar-playing type, nor did his remark, her reality was enough for the both of them. And for me.