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Remote Patrol

Partners and Ned and Stacey are dead, but their casts live on in eerily familiar sitcoms

Am I the only person with fond memories of Partners and Ned and Stacey? The underrated 1995-96 Fox sitcoms were dismissed by most critics, Partners for its alleged similarities to Friends (which existed in title alone) and Ned for its far-fetched premise (ad exec Thomas Haden Church advances his career by arranging a sham marriage to polar opposite Debra Messing). Neither show made a ripple in the ratings, but somebody must have been watching, because suddenly both casts are turning up all over the tube.

To wit: Greg Germann (who played Ned’s dim-bulb buddy) has hooked viewers as moneygrubbing, philosophy-spouting attorney Richard Fish on Ally McBeal, which has found success in the same post-Melrose Place time slot where Ned and Partners floundered. Messing stars in ABC’s mid-season sci-fi misfire Prey, and Partners’ Tate Donovan has begun a recurring role on Friends as a wealthy Bloomingdale’s customer who has Rachel (Jennifer Aniston, Donovan’s real-life love) ready to undress. Catherine Lloyd Burns, who played the loopy assistant to Partners’ architects Donovan and Jon Cryer, will be seen as yet another loopy assistant in Al Franken’s NBC newsroom sitcom Lateline. And Cryer will costar with Vivica A. Fox in the Fox sitcom The Way We Work, cocreated by Partners’ Jeff Greenstein and Jeff Strauss.

This week, two more sitcoms – House Rules (NBC, Mondays, 8:30-9 p.m.) and That’s Life (ABC, Tuesdays, 9:30-10 p.m.) – will debut with veterans of the earlier shows taking on oddly similar roles. On Partners, Maria Pitillo hung out with two guys (her fiance and his lifelong best pal); on Rules, Pitillo hangs out with two guys (her lifelong best pals). On Ned, Nadia Dajani traded insults with her boorish brother-in-law (Church); on Life, Dajani trades insults with her boorish brother-in-law (Gerry Red Wilson). But there’s one big difference between the shows: Life upholds Ned’s tradition of quality comedy, while Rules desecrates Partners’ legacy.

Life stars Wilson, a Jackie Gleason-esque stand-up comic, as a Queens butcher whose working-class paradise is disrupted when his wife’s snooty Manhattanite sister (Dajani) moves in, seeking refuge from her crumbling marriage. Like Church, Wilson brings a larger-than-life bravado to the small screen that could easily overwhelm weaker costars. Luckily, that’s not a problem for Dajani, whose snippy comebacks match Wilson’s blustery put-downs blow for blow. Though the squabbles can be strident, Life should benefit from the guidance of creator Eric Gilliland, an old hand at blue-collar humor from his tours of duty as a writer and exec producer on Roseanne.

Rules, however, was made to be broken. Pitillo remains a beguiling presence; she’s not just another one of Warren Littlefield’s Women – NBC starlets like Brooke Shields and Jenny McCarthy whose alleged sex appeal can’t hide their limited comedic prowess. But Pitillo’s stuck with two interchangeable housemates (Bradley White and David Newsom) and scripts overseen by The Naked Truth creator Chris Thompson that seem like thinly disguised episodes of Three’s Company. The best Pitillo can hope for is that Rules tanks and her role in Godzilla turns her into a movie star. Or, failing that, she gets another sitcom as good as Partners and Ned and Stacey were. Hey, here’s an idea: She hangs out with two guys….