The WB‘s Grosse Pointe is a new sitcom from Darren Star that parodies both the substance and production of his own earlier creation Beverly Hills 90210, and it is amusing and well-made, a gently mordant cousin to last year’s Hollywood backstager Action — and, for its sweeter tone, has a better chance to last. We in the television audience tend to like our villains lovable, and even a little vulnerable — think of crafty old J.R., or bickering undead sweethearts Spike and Drusilla — just as we like our heroes heroic and not anti-, because we have to live with them week after week. And while Grosse Pointe offers backstage intrigue aplenty and a compulsively manipulative villainess, its overall tone is sunny and fanciful. (Though it‘s also more than usually persuasive about the technical business of filming a TV show.) As written by Star, whose present claims to intellectualartistic legitimacy devolve primarily from his cable hit Sex and the City (he also created Melrose Place and has another new series, The $treet, bowing on Fox November 1), it has so far been no worse than affectionately mocking of Hollywood — which has, after all, been very, very good to him — and rude to actors only in the way that screenwriters have always been rude to actors.
Nevertheless, the pilot script ticked off Aaron Spelling, Star’s old boss and currently the producer of the WB‘s top-rated Seventh Heaven, who saw one character as unkindly modeled on his daughter Tori. Certain identifying features were therefore either eliminated (a nepotistic relation with a studio bigwig, cosmetic surgery jokes, some violent indications of an eating disorder, including what Star described to the press as ”a funny vomiting scene“) or changed (hair color). The effect of Spelling’s protest was, of course, only to link the character firmly, and publicly, with her putative model. Though Star, a tad disingenuous if not actually wrong, maintains that he is writing fiction and dealing in ”archetypes . . . relatively great stock Hollywood types“ — the jealous prima donna, the aging juvenile, the brainless hunk — the characters played by Lindsey Sloane (Valerie on Sabrina the Teenage Witch), Irene Molloy, Kohl Sudduth and Al Santos are clearly meant to call to mind Tori, Shannon, Luke and Jason; even I can tell that, and I can‘t have watched BH90210 ever. Not more than twice. Three times, maybe. Or six. Okay, 12 times. Okay, maybe more. I’m not sure who Bonnie Somerville — as the new girl on the set, fresh from a college production of A Doll‘s House and wanting to discuss ”character objectives“ and ”sense memory work“ — is supposed to resemble, but she’s very funny, as is everyone else; as on Sex and the City, the players manage not to sacrifice character to caricature, while playing both the comedy and the drama the comedy decorates. It‘s nice to see personable William Ragsdale (Herman’s Head) as a writer on the show within the show; Ellen‘s Joely Fisher, who played Ragsdale’s writing partner, and whom it was also nice to see, has decamped to John Goodman‘s forthcoming series Normal, Ohio, where she will certainly have more to do and say.
Hollywood — and the television business, ostensibly, though no business is ever done — is the setting as well of Curb Your Enthusiasm, a very funny 10-episode series from Larry David, the co-creator of Seinfeld, that takes off from his 1999 HBO special of the same name. This is not the Hollywood of early calls and hot lights and blind ambition, but the Hollywood of sometimes not bothering to shave, of wandering into the office whenever, of hanging around on ”hold,“ of lunching, of shopping, of idle street-corner shtick, of possessing an excess of nervous energy in a town that can’t absorb it. It crosses the jittery obsessive-compulsiveness of Seinfeld — David is the generally acknowledged model for George Costanza, though he is a different shape and size — with the low-key documentary vibe of The Larry Sanders Show (famous people, including David, play themselves). That the dialogue is improvised, that lines trail off into nothing, that the actors echo one another while they‘re thinking what to say, gives the show a special tang — a flavor that takes a little getting used to, but it’s worth the trouble — and a rhythm and sound sometimes reminiscent of the also ad-libbed Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist. Like Seinfeld (and Sanders and Katz) Curb Your Enthusiasm is more cerebral than your average sitcom — I always thought of Seinfeld as a kind of baggy-pants Greek tragedy, a burlesque on the theme of inescapable fate — and also more visceral, or perhaps I just mean dyspeptic: Like the Seinfeld quartet, David is led by his guts, by desire and disgust, in more or less equal, equally unmanageable measures. ”I see certain items and I recoil in horror,“ he says, speaking of a hat, whose wearer he therefore snubs, with the expected delayed bad consequences. There are Seinfeldian coinages here as well — ”double goodbye,“ ”blind license,“ ”pants tent“ — along with that show‘s distrust of the service class, and the sense that helping people merely invites them to abuse you. But mostly, like Seinfeld and practically every situation comedy ever mounted, from I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners on down, Curb Your Enthusiasm is about dishonesty, about telling lies, and getting caught. ”A lie is a gesture,“ says David, who is both helpless to keep from telling them and helpless to keep from confessing. ”It’s a courtesy. It‘s a little respect.“
Sex and the City is the obvious model for Girlfriends, a new UPN sitcom in which four fabulously dressed young women bond, battle, get stupid over shoes and try to puzzle out the man thing, with the difference in this case that they are black and live in Los Angeles and have a laugh track running beneath, or over, their conversations. Spike Lee recently knocked the show in Newsweek — ”[I]s that the only thing black women can talk about is getting fucked? [Or “f–ked,” in Newsweekspeak.] And then the show had black men holding their johnsons and looking into the camera smiling. What white show has white men grabbing their nuts and smiling into the camera?“ Spike perhaps overestimates the sexual delicacy of ”white shows,“ many of which give nuts and johnsons more than their share of play, but I must admit that the first time I saw Girlfriends, I did keep switching the channel out of . . . what? Embarrassment? Dismay? I’d click back to find the camera focused a little too pointedly on some woman‘s shrink-wrapped bottom, or find the conversation turned to toe-sucking (in the episode titled ”Toe Sucking“), or the characters insulting each other in the unnatural way that sitcom characters do, and I’d click away again. I‘m sorry, I’m just a scaredy-cat.
But I am a professional, and gave the show another, longer look. And though I suppose it is damning with faint praise to say that Girlfriends isn‘t as bad as I first thought, the truth, is I really don’t mean to damn so much as to . . . praise faintly. Created by Mara Brock Akil (Moesha) and produced at the executive level by Kelsey Grammer, Girlfriends is not without its ills but they are ills of the artificial, exhausted, sitcomical kind, and if we factor those out, if we take those as given, if we adjust — lower — our expectations accordingly, we are left with an admittedly bootycentric but not actively stupid or mean-spirited entertainment, and one that makes at least a stab at representing real adult concerns in between the toe sucks. And the four women who star — Tracee Ellis Ross, Golden Brooks, Persia White and Jill Marie Jones — are attractive company, albeit they are still acting their assigned attitudes, rather than inhabiting fleshed-out characters. But Sex and the City had to get over that hump as well. Girlfriends won‘t be the season’s best series, but I can pretty well guarantee you it won‘t be the worst.