Suzanne Somers achieved success by being a blond bombshell defused in advance; as a television-manufactured sex symbol and comedic actress, she has always been ready for prime time. Flashy and giggly, wiggly and nonthreatening, Somers remains best known for the five seasons she spent as Chrissy Snow on Three's Company, the quintessential TV sex farce: all provocation, no payoff.
When Somers walked away from Three's Company after the 1979-80 season in a contract dispute, it was a gesture that mingled bravery with foolhardiness. Hollywood has never taken kindly to sex symbols who want more money and power than the men who run the industry deign to grant them. Over the course of the '80s, Somers' career turned into the stuff of an SCTV parody: campy, schlocky TV movies like Hollywood Wives, a singing-and-dancing nightclub career that probably made Joey Heatherton green with envy, an ongoing sideline as a poet whose verse crossed Sylvia Plath with Erma Bombeck.
These days, however, the 44-year-old Somers is enjoying a sudden comeback. She's costarring with Dallas' Patrick Duffy in Step by Step, a sitcom from the folks who brought you Family Matters and Perfect Strangers. Nestled between those two big hits on Friday nights, it has the potential to become a huge success itself.
Step by Step, it's exactly what you might expect: a sitcom as well-executed and weightless as everything else produced by what ABC calls ''the hit comedy workshop'' of creators Thomas L. Miller and Robert L. Boyett (Full House, etc.). An updating of The Brady Bunch, Step features Somers and Duffy as newlyweds who each have three children from previous marriages. The kids squabble, but fairly amiably, and Duffy shows an unexpectedly goofy side of his personality that is charming. Somers is Somers, beaming out a smile so wide it threatens to split her face in half.
Two elements separate Step by Step from other sitcoms. One is a plot device: Somers runs a hair salon that adjoins the family's house, and the Steel Magnolias-like assortment of oddballs that constitute her hairdressers and their customers is, so far, an amusing lot. The other interesting thing is a running joke: Somers and Duffy are perpetually in heat for each other panting, kissing, pawing. Sex rears its unruly head so rarely in sitcom marriages that this amounts to a novelty, one that will remain intriguing until the show overdoes it with too many but-the-kids-will-hear-us jokes. I give that three more weeks.
Note: You'll see my Step by Step grade below, but you should also know that the youngsters in my house, who have made ABC's Friday-night slate of Miller-Boyett sitcoms a devout ritual, give the series a strong B+. It pains me to write that, but fair is fair. C