The current common wisdom is that the sitcom format is tired, if not dead. We've been so inundated with the rhythm of setup and punchline (followed by a now-apparently obligatory punchline topper involving either vomit or oral sex) that even when the rhythm rocks righteously, as it so often does on, say, Friends, we're still at least a little bit sick of the genre itself. Me, I think everything can be blamed on three other NBC sitcoms one still on, two gone, but all three having displayed a cockroach-like imperviousness to cancellation: Suddenly Susan, Caroline in the City, and the Emmy-winning Mad About You. Once the networks have stooped as low as those three, it's hard to muster up interest in the new stuff.
Which certainly makes for a cheery lead-in to Stark Raving Mad, doesn't it? (We'll get to Friends and its dithering partner-in-quality Frasier in a moment.) Stark succeeds Veronica's Closet as NBC's latest attempt to launch a 9:30 Thursday-night hit (the network has forklifted Veronica over to Monday nights, where with any luck it'll soon have a very special unfortunate crossover with the show it precedes, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit). In theory, Stark's got the goods: It's created by Steve Levitan, whose Just Shoot Me has pulled off the small miracle of being a show in which alternate-universe actors like George Segal and David Spade can share scenes without making your head explode from the sheer incongruity. And the premise of Stark is fetching: Nutty horror-fiction writer Ian Stark (Wings' Tony Shalhoub, wearing Frank Zappa's facial hair) makes life hell for his neurotically sane editor, Henry McNeely (Neil Patrick Harris, burying any vestigial Doogie Howserisms under a thick coat of David Hyde Pierce fussy-man mannerisms).
NBC has sent out three episodes of Stark for review, and for the life of me, I can't figure out why I'm not laughing: The stars are a classic odd couple and their timing is crack which also seems to be the substance Ian's foggily stupid assistant (Eddie McClintock) is smoking. Come to think of it, ''odd couple'' may be the crux of the problem here: Whenever I see Ian's book-lined New York City study or hear Henry's girlfriend (Dorie Barton) deliver a line like ''I am not putting another thing in my mouth for a week!'' I think two things: (1) I know the next line is going to be prissily smutty and (2) this is just like a 30-year-old Neil Simon comedy. Which is both a compliment (hey, in his heyday, Simon only had to crank out one Broadway yuk machine a year; Levitan and his staff are doing it once a week) and a curse, because it means that if anything, the sitcom has regressed to a tired, stagebound form. You and I have seen too many book-lined studies filled with contrasting wisecrackers; no matter how good the actors and their material, these days we simply need something different.
Having said that, I will now turn on a dime and say I still look forward to Friends every seven days. Producers Marta Kauffman, David Crane, and Kevin Bright have managed to make this show, now in its sixth season, into a Rubik's Cube of comedy: They can twist and turn its characters in endless combinations pairing off David Schwimmer's Ross with Jennifer Aniston's Rachel; Matthew Perry's Chandler with Courteney Cox Arquette's Monica; Matt LeBlanc's Joey with Chandler (as roommates so emotionally entwined they might just as well be lovers); and Lisa Kudrow's Phoebe with her own loonily self-absorbed, uninhibited id.
The show is still enjoying what Phoebe called in the Sept. 23 premiere a ''Frienaissance'' last season's refreshed energy continues, even unto this week's funny gag of having Rachel's boss suddenly start referring to her as ''Raquel'' and Barney Miller's Ron Glass appearing as Ross' overworked divorce lawyer. This series has become as dependably amusing as any show on television.
Finally: Frasier. You know what the best thing about Rita Wilson guest-starring in the season premiere was? Aside from the fact that she actually looked like a woman Kelsey Grammer's Frasier Crane might, for once, believably fall for (though the running joke was that she was too much so since she looked like his long-deceased mother), Wilson's presence also gave this exemplary but increasingly repetitive group of characters an actress with different comedic rhythms to bounce their talents off and the invigoration showed.
Unlike Friends, Frasier's cast has some weak links. Jane Leeves'
Daphne has simply outlasted her usefulness as a comic foil, and
Peri Gilpin's Roz along with the entire radio-station half of the
show has been a bore for the past two seasons now. This leaves
the triangle of Grammer, Pierce, and John Mahoney pawing the same
comedic ground week after week; they remain valiantly exuberant,
but the strain began showing last year. If any series exemplifies
the pickle the sitcom is in, this once-great one stands as its
Stark Raving Mad: C+