Although she's playing a character with, so far, very little character, and starring in a sitcom that, so far, has shown scant sign of sustained excellence, Tea Leoni's work in The Naked Truth (ABC, Wednesdays, 9:30-10 p.m.) is nonetheless one of the great pleasures of the new television season. There has rarely been a TV actor as attractive as Leoni who's also so heedless of her attractiveness which, of course, ends up only making her seem that much more attractive.
Playing Nora Wilde, a tabloid paparazzo with grander goals, Leoni literally throws herself into her work: Nora jumps through windows, gets thrown out of cars, and is trampled by rabid colleagues in search of a hot celebrity photo or quote. The role requires a performer willing to engage in go-for-broke slapstick, and Leoni is a one-woman Laverne & Shirley. She's so breathtakingly plucky, you want to applaud even when the scene for which she's going broke seems pretty lame.
The Naked Truth has a solid sitcom concept at its core. When it premiered, we were told that Nora Wilde was a hoity-toity socialite married to a very rich man (we've since met the guy, played with notable stiffness by Michael York). They divorced over his philandering, and Nora had such an uncommon sense of honor that she refused to take any money in the settlement. Left only with her party-girl wardrobe, the onetime journalist (a running joke is that Nora is constantly reminding people she was, long ago, nominated for a Pulitzer Prize) takes the only job she can find: with The Weekly Comet, a supermarket rag that runs headlines like I Had Sex With Bigfoot. (See? I told you the show's writing wasn't very funny.)
At the Comet, her boss is veteran character actor Holland Taylor, the only performer who can hold the screen with Leoni. The rest of the cast including Jonathan Penner as a fellow photographer, Amy Ryan as Nora's stepdaughter, and Jack Blessing as Nora's landlord are utter ciphers, and not through any fault of the actors; it's as if the writers don't know what to do with these characters. (The show recently acknowledged this by implication, building nearly an entire episode around just Leoni and Taylor slapsticking around in a morgue while trying to snap a photo of a dead celebrity.) It often seems as if most of the writers' creativity has gone into cooking up new sniggers about sex; a subplot about the existence of Elvis Presley's frozen sperm must have set a new prime-time record for tawdry euphemisms.
The Naked Truth is the creation of executive producer Chris Thompson. It's clear he has talent; it's just difficult to figure out what the nature of that talent is. Thompson has amassed lots of cult karma for overseeing Bosom Buddies, the 1980-82 sitcom about cross-dressing pals played by Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari (with, again in the role of boss, Holland Taylor). Buddies, a ratings mediocrity panned by critics at the time, was always funnier than its premise. As on Naked, it was the performances of the stars, not the writing or directing of the show, that made Buddies amusing. Thompson must be awfully good with actors; he seems to give them enough freedom to break out their best stuff. Hanks obviously feels some loyalty to Thompson: The biggest movie star in America made a generous cameo appearance on Naked Truth's second episode in a typically feeble subplot his zipper was stuck, and Nora had to help him out.
For now, The Naked Truth's plum position between Grace Under Fire and PrimeTime Live is enough to keep it high in the ratings. But there'll soon come a day when Leoni's skill, charm, and energy won't be able to keep the series aloft. Thompson had better begin to shape this show more to the advantage of its star, and fast. B