Tom Arnold, who has had himself written out of Roseanne by being beamed up into an alien spaceship — twice — has returned to prime time as Jackie Thomas, an obnoxious comic with a top 10 sitcom called The Jackie Thomas Show. The idea is that TV viewers love Jackie because he’s such a loud, lovable dope. But those same qualities are what make him such a headache for his writing staff, headed up by new recruit Jerry Harper, portrayed by Dennis Boutsikaris. Playing off the tabloid tales of temper tantrums and staff firings that lingered over the first few seasons of his wife’s series, Roseanne, Arnold struts through The Jackie Thomas Show barking orders and driving everyone crazy.
In the initial episodes of Jackie Thomas, as much time is spent introducing us to Harper as to Jackie himself, which might be a miscalculation. Boutsikaris, who starred in the short-lived 1991 sitcom Stat, always seems like a dramatic actor who has wandered into comedy — he’s earnest, he reads his lines with feeling, but he’s never funny for a second.
Much better are Martin Mull, also fresh from Roseanne and doing his patented smarmy-weasel act as a network representative who, more than a decade ago, passed on the concept of Cheers (”Buncha slobs sittin’ around a bar — who knew?”), and Alison LaPlaca, as Harper’s smart, wry assistant. No TV actress can do wryness like LaPlaca, who, after being wasted in bad shows like Open House and — well, whaddya know — Stat, may have finally found the series that showcases her properly.
As for Arnold, he’s good, using his usual physical tics — the shifty eyes, the incessant lip-licking — as comic mannerisms to convey Jackie’s nervous desperation. Jackie is a funny guy who suspects he’s really not that funny, who has somehow lucked into a show that millions of people watch every week. Jackie vents his insecurity by doing things like inserting the word bastard into a punch line during rehearsal and crowing, ”Hey, everybody, I wrote a line!” At the same time, Jackie’s not an unlikable guy; he has the courage of his vulgar convictions. When Harper tells Jackie he used to write for Barney Miller and Taxi, Jackie snarls, ”I hated those shows!” Jackie’s favorite series? Green Acres.
As the character’s name suggests, Jackie is an updated version of an old- fashioned kind of comic — big, braying joke machines like Jack E. Leonard, Jack Carter, or early-period Jackie Gleason. Those performers were primarily nightclub entertainers who made their reputations before it became common to plug a comedian into a sitcom the minute his stand-up act makes him popular. Arnold’s Jackie is the result of what might happen when a comic of the old school encounters the new generation of TV-weaned sitcom writers. There’s a fundamental difference in sensibilities, and the writers’ comic rhythms, timed to the beats in a half-hour sitcom minus the commercials, don’t match the expansive, toss-out-a-lotta-jokes-and-see-what-works approach of a Jackie Thomas.
This is an extremely promising premise, but it’s one that, so far, The Jackie Thomas Show has barely explored. Tom and Roseanne Arnold are executive producers of the show, and it is as if they’re so unsure of Tom’s potential charm, or lack of it, that they’ve decided to dole out his character to us in small amounts. Right now, the bulk of the series revolves around the Jackie Thomas Show writing team, which in addition to Boutsikaris consists of China Beach’s Michael Boatman, Maryedith Burrell (Fridays), and Paul Feig. They spend long, fitfully amusing scenes sitting around pitching ideas and punch lines to each other, whenever they’re not wishing their dictatorial boss was dead.
In the series’ debut, Boutsikaris’ Harper puts a picture of Dick Van Dyke on his desk the day he begins work on the Jackie show — we’re supposed to think that Van Dyke, who played a comedy writer in the old Dick Van Dyke Show, is Harper’s patron saint. But Boatman and Burrell, though perfectly charming, aren’t yet quite up to the standards of Morey Amsterdam and Rose Marie; in fact, they’re usually upstaged by LaPlaca’s arched eyebrows and droll comments. The comedy-writer scenes really come to life only when, say, Jackie pops in with a pizza and a giggling bimbo of a date and orders the staff to leave the room so he can ”use the couch.”
There’s a level on which Tom Arnold is playing Roseanne — if Roseanne Arnold had no talent and was stuck in a mediocre sitcom. (Whenever we actually glimpse a scene from the Jackie Thomas show-within-this-show, it’s revealed to be a huggy little bore on the order of Growing Pains or Who’s the Boss?, with Jackie as a dumb-but-plucky dad.) Whether viewers will enjoy these little in-jokes week after week — scheduled by no coincidence at all right after the great Roseanne — remains to be seen. But in the meantime, I hope future episodes will have more of Jackie Thomas in them. This is no time to get modest on us, Tom. B