At the risk of sounding like the Johnnie Cochran of television criticism, I find it difficult to believe that The Single Guy and Caroline in the City can get a fair hearing in the present cultural atmosphere. I refer, of course, to the persistent and perhaps unfair comparisons that these two new sitcoms have endured with Friends and with Seinfeld, comparisons even I have been guilty of making. You know the ones: that The Single Guy and Caroline in the City are, like the prime-time phenoms just mentioned, shows about roving packs of sophisticated, attractive Manhattanites who make clever banter in variations on therapy-speak, who chat amusingly in the rapid-fire cadence of yup-to-the-minute Neil Simon dialogue.
The single guy in The Single Guy is played by Jonathan Silverman, whose film career looked about as dead as the stiff in those Weekend at Bernie’s movies he starred in; Silverman’s sitcom time had come. He delivers his lines with a distracting little twist of his mouth — it’s as if Phil Silvers had been reborn as a handsome young devil. Silverman plays Johnny Eliot, a likable cipher (I’ve watched two episodes and still can’t remember what Johnny does for a living), all of whose friends are married. (Oh, right — he’s a novelist.)
The married friends include a couple with a new baby. They’re played by Mark Moses and — Your Honor, I’m not sure the jury should hear this bit of evidence — Jessica Hecht, who has a recurring role on Friends. Then there’s the couple with the guy who just acts like a baby Joey Slotnick and ER’s Ming-Na Wen. For comic relief from all this comedy, there’s Johnny’s apartment-house doorman, played with gleaming choppers and delightful spryness by Ernest Borgnine.
The Single Guy maintains a regular rhythm of laughs — nothing gut busting. Johnny is forever meeting women, in the hope of finding wedded bliss. But, of course, they turn out to be either eccentric lunatics or eccentric shrews. The view of the single life here is distinctly depressing. I say let’s get Johnny stoked on Prozac and set him up on a blind date with Elizabeth Wurtzel.
Lea Thompson’s single-woman character in Caroline in the City, by contrast, should probably try going out with Malik Yoba of Fox’s New York Undercover, if only to widen her experience beyond her drawing board (Caroline’s a cartoonist) and her navel (Caroline uses her neurotic life as material for her strip). As it is, she’s stuck with Del, played by Eric Lutes — so good as the gay station manager on Frasier, so tedious as a wuffly-haired dullard here.
The real sparks on this show are between Caroline and the guy she’s hired to color her strip, Richard. He’s played by Malcolm Gets as a rude, fussy little man whose crankiness is a welcome contrast to Caroline’s sunniness. Which is not to say that Thompson’s presence here isn’t welcome — she’s a beguiling sitcom star, with just the right mixture of silliness, sexiness, and serenity.
Caroline specializes in inter-media studies, which is to say that this sitcom makes jokes about other TV shows (Maude, Melrose Place), as well as the credits of its actors (Howard the Duck, Thompson’s most notable film bomb, was a clever recent punchline). It results in a self-consciousness that needs to be toned down, as quickly as possible.
So, overall, two nice, charming shows. The question remaining is, if Seinfeld and Friends did not exist, would The Single Guy and Caroline in the City reap rich reviews for their unique wit and originality?
Nah. The Single Guy: B