I suppose we can hold Roseanne responsible for both Bless This House (CBS, Wednesdays, 8-8:30 p.m.) and The Drew Carey Show (ABC, Wednesdays, 8:30-9 p.m.). After all, if she hadn’t single-handedly revived the notion of the lower-middle-class situation comedy — a sitcom subgenre that had languished since Archie Bunker bellowed his final epithet — chances are the networks wouldn’t be taking chances on the cheerfully crass protagonists of these two new shows.
In Bless This House, Andrew Clay stars as a voluble postal worker in a show so anxious to be compared to The Honeymooners, it had Clay yelling, ”Hey, Alice, I’m home!” in the pilot episode. The Drew Carey Show features the bullet-shaped stand-up as a harried department-store assistant personnel director whose highest words of praise for a woman are, ”She’s crude, she’s vulgar, and she hates all the same people I do.”
Both of these shows take for granted the beliefs that Roseanne brought to the genre — namely, that members of the lower middle class may be ill-educated, but are not stupid; that they feel ill-respected by those above them and aren’t going to take it anymore.
It is, though, pretty creepy to see Andrew Clay attaching himself to themes like this. Just a few years ago, Clay was ”the Diceman,” venting more obscene spleen than any stand-up comedian before him, rousing rabble and becoming less and less funny by the second. But the bottom fell out of his shock act, and now he’s acting the lovey-dovey husband with costar Cathy Moriarty. Moriarty brings timing, depth, and sympathy to Bless This House, which is lucky for Clay, since he’s primarily around to look like a big, befuddled teddy bear and to deliver his lines in his usual Brooklyn slur. (Holding up a small pair of trousers, he bleats, ”Ya shrunk my paints!”)
Bless has smart things to say about how hardworking parents manage family life, but the show is hobbled by its endless succession of squalid sex jokes. When the 12-year-old daughter in the family (Raegan Kotz) asks Moriarty, ”How long did it take you to become a mother?” Moriarty replies, ”Two minutes and a bottle of Chianti.” Call me a square, but this is pretty yucky stuff for a mother-daughter exchange. Bless This House is best when Clay and Moriarty argue and then make up; that’s when their wrangling romance rings most true.
Drew Carey has been a far more interesting stand-up comic than Andrew Clay, so it’s not surprising that The Drew Carey Show, while taking up the themes of Roseanne, is smart enough to place its own spin on these notions. Carey’s character — called Drew Carey — is an affable cynic, a Cleveland shlub who’s bought his parents’ old house and keeps a pool table in the backyard. Drew doesn’t want much out of life, just a fridge full of beer and the company of his pals-played by the likable but so far interchangeable Diedrich Bader and Ryan Stiles, along with the utterly charming Christa Miller, whose Kate is already one of the more vivid women on television, neither bombshell nor Rhoda-esque wiseacre — a regular person, for a change!
Carey himself is a fidgety guy. He doesn’t just deliver a line — he kind of dances around it, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. At first I found this, combined with his habit of looking down and grinning fixedly when he speaks to someone, pretty annoying. But his lines are so amusing and his timing so sharp that I’ve come to like Carey’s anti-acting style. Unlike most airless sitcoms, The Drew Carey Show has a real sense of place and atmosphere; Drew’s house looks lived in, and when he’s sprawled on a couch reading a comic book (Harvey Pekar’s marvelous Cleveland-based comic American Splendor), he looks utterly at ease. I’d rather bless Carey’s house than Clay’s. Bless This House: C The Drew Carey Show: B+