The TV industry, like any other big business enterprise, consists of many hardworking, intelligent, and occasionally brilliant people laboring with varying degrees of creativity, cynicism, and timorousness. Greed, fear, and exhaustion of imagination can produce lots of stupid or bland television shows, making the good stuff seem almost miraculous and the mediocre stuff common. Check out four sitcomsthree new Friday-night WB entries, Maybe It's Me, Reba, and Raising Dad (all debuting Sept. 14), plus the second-season premiere of HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm (Sept. 11)and you'll see instructive examples of intelligence and talent either thwarted or triumphant.
The title Maybe It's Me is the implied refrain running through the mind of 15-year-old Molly (newcomer Reagan Dale Neis) as she surveys her loony suburban family, which includes her father (Best in Show's Fred Willard), who's dementedly obsessed with coaching a girls' soccer team; a dim-wittedly useless mother (Saturday Night Live's Julia Sweeney); a brother (Patrick Levis) who blasts Christian rock so ferociously it makes Slayer sound like devout penitents; and a grandmother (Ellen Albertini Dow) whose primary activity is hiding canned peaches under the sofa cushions.
Pop culture began making jokes about senility at least as long ago as 1970 with the frantic George Segal-Ruth Gordon movie Where's Poppa?, but that had bleaker, blacker gags; the ones on Me are just odd. And with its adolescent voice-over narration and one-camera shooting style, the show blatantly mimics Malcolm in the Middle and The Wonder Years, yet lacks the humor to excuse its thefts. Neis, however, is effective as the sardonic center of the show, and Willard and Sweeney, though capable of so much more, coax smiles from us on the strength of their off-kilter line readings.
In Reba, the star stands in for the audience and express our appalled dismay over this sordid sitcom's premise. The Oklahoman McEntire plays the Texan Reba Hart, whose shameless dentist husband (Murphy Brown's Christopher Rich) has left her for his pregnant dental hygienist girlfriend (Melissa Peterman). And Reba's unmarried teen daughter (JoAnna Garcia) is pregnant by her moronic boyfriend (Steve Howey). Reba wants us to believe that all this vulgar, selfish behavior can result in one big happy family situation. Only McEntire, still glowingly feisty from the rave reviews she got in Broadway's Annie Get Your Gun, avoids looking furtively desperate in this seamy enterprise.
Among the smarter people involved in Raising Dad are star Bob Saget, as a shrewder father than he portrayed on Full House, and creator-producer Jonathan Katz, of Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist cartoon fame. Together, they try to give this old wheeze of a conceptsingle dad, two daughters, smart-aleck granddad (Jerry Adler, loan-sharked from The Sopranos)a little heart, as befits the second show developed with the support of the positive-message-pushing Family Friendly Programming Forum (the first is the much superior Gilmore Girls). While I respect the allure of a good paycheck, it's still hard to understand why Katz, whose comedy has always been marked by pinprick sharpness, and Saget, whose own stand-up is often engagingly profane, settled for this self-conscious show, with its chatter and fuss over what makes a ''good'' parent.
To see what someone can do to reinvigorate the sitcom, look at HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm, where Larry David, co-creator of Seinfeld, plays Larry David, cocreator of Seinfeld, in semi-improvised plots that invariably place our easily enraged protagonist in the worst, most hilarious light. Whether house-hunting with his wife, Cheryl (the marvelous Cheryl Hines), and moaning that they're all too big (''This place is, like, for the Osmonds'') or telling a man who's shaved his head, ''We don't consider you part of the bald community,'' the shiny-domed David is fearlessly self-righteous in a way the characters on The WB could never be, lest they alienate the family audience they must try to attract.
Unshackled by a network mandate, David portrays himself as an L.A. layabout living off his Seinfeld money (''I've got ideas [for shows] but I choose not to carry them out,'' he says proudly). Rather than envy or despise him, we identify with his infinite capacity to be annoyed by petty slights. Last season, it took me a while to get used to the shambling pace imposed by the show's improv strategy, but by now, Curb's inventive riffing is like good jazz music. Just seeing David, in the second episode, begging passersby (aggressively, pathetically) to show him how to use the jack to repair his car's flat tire is funnier than anything those other three shows will devise all season. Sometimes the most intelligent people come up with the simplest ideas, and they work like a charm. Maybe It's Me: C Reba: C- Raising Dad: C Curb Your Enthusiasm: A-