While you and I swat flies and swill smoothies, out in Tinseltown the elves of entertainment are busy cobbling together fresh episodes of television. Here’s some unsolicited advice to a batch of returning sitcoms on how to rev up the fall season:
MEN BEHAVING BADLY This will be the year’s most scrutinized revamping. Ron Eldard and Justine Bateman have been replaced (although Eldard will appear in one more episode), leaving Rob Schneider to carry the weight of Men’s assiduous boorishness, with new costarring cutups Ken Marino (The State) and Jenica Bergere (Ink). From the beginning, the series failed to live up to its title, copped from a British show whose protagonists were permitted to be more variously loutish — hungover, prejudiced, and sullen as well as sexist. On American television, regular characters have to be likable; at their randiest, they can only ogle women and make double entendres about sex.
Right there you have Men’s central problem: No guys as crude as Schneider and Eldard’s characters would bother using arch euphemisms. They never got as down and dirty as the show promised, and NBC’s moving it to 8 p.m. on Sundays can only decrease the naughtiness quotient.
Solution: Let Schneider be Schneider, as goofily raucous as prime time permits, but surround him with a contrasting personality, someone who’s so square and stiff-backed, he or she will make this bad boy seem like even more of a daringly crude doofus. Hint: more physical humor and sight gags, fewer thin-blooded verbal jokes.
SPIN CITY Another series whose fall move to 8 p.m. (on Wednesdays) will probably squelch its frequently ribald humor. About halfway through last season, the vague personalities surrounding Michael J. Fox’s beleaguered deputy mayor jelled as a crack ensemble, with Michael Boatman and Alan Ruck emerging as wonderfully prickly comic foils. But they often left Fox standing around playing the straight man.
Solution: With ABC introducing a new female character for the second season — maybe she’ll give Fox some clever guff? — all the elements are in place. But it’s up to the writers to spin Spin away from its tendency toward easy sexual yuks and turn it into a literate screwball comedy — a His Girl Friday for the ’90s that’ll utilize the rush-rush pace of big-city politics as a source of manic humor. And, of course, move it to a later time period.
THE NAKED TRUTH Last season’s tinkering was disastrous: Trying to upgrade Tea Leoni’s scandal-sheet job robbed the NBC series of the vulgar energy it had on ABC, and new costar George Wendt was never really given a character to play.
Solution: Wendt is already gone, but I’d fire everybody else as well — they’re a bunch of whiny sour balls. Except, of course, for Holland Taylor’s deftly snappy, snappish Camilla Dane. Furthermore, the producers should start using their tabloid-newspaper backdrop the way the feature film Men in Black is doing this summer: Assume that the tabs get at the real — y’know, naked — truth, and make Leoni’s Nora a first-rate journalist who thrives on digging up dirt. (No one likes to watch a character who feels ashamed of what she does.) Truth needs its first season’s sexiness and slapstick mixed with a new sense of smartness.