First came "West 57th." Then came "I Had Three Wives." And now comes "Hometown," 10 p.m. Thursday, the latest clunker in CBS' summer introductions of fall series. The verdict so far?
CBS is programming by cookie cutter.
"West 57th" is a newsmagazine, "I Had Three Wives" a comedy/mystery and "Hometown" a comedy/drama. Separate, yes, but in a way also equal.
You probably could interchange the casts (young, urban-oriented, swell-looking) and attitudes (shallow) without anyone knowing the difference. In fact, you could envision the cast or characters from one show watching the other and--what's worse--liking what they see.
"I Had Three Wives" stars Victor Garber as a private eye whose three grandly endowed former spouses (Maggie Cooper, Shanna Reed and Teri Copley) help him solve his cases. The thin-plotted idiocy, a sort of citified Sleuths of Hazzard, includes car chases and fistfights with no one getting even bruised or nicked.
Though of a different genre, "West 57th" is also odorless and unaffecting. No marks. No creases. Same for "Hometown."
Because the "Hometown" producers insist that its roots extend back a number of years, the show's striking resemblance to the 1983 theatrical movie "The Big Chill" must be another of those remarkable look-alike "coincidences" that occur so frequently in Hollywood.
The "Hometown" seven are old college chums who have traded their alleged political and social idealism of the 1960s for various degrees of fiscal solidarity in the 1980s. The theme: dreams versus comfort and conformity. The operative cliche: selling out .
The premiere chronicles theirreunion in the trendy-tweedy/New Englandly town of Whitely. Two of the group, Mary and Ben (Jane Kaczmarek and Franc Luz), have decided to formally wed after having two daughters and living together under the pretense of marriage for 13 years. So everyone is invited to their wedding in their great old house.
Why haven't Mary and Ben married before this? Why bother to marry now after all these years? Why spring this on their kids so casually? Why do their kids react so casually after assuming all their lives that their parents were man and wife? Why don't the kids feel just a little bit hurt or betrayed
Why? Because emotions run shallow on "Hometown."
Back to Whitely for the wedding come rock star Christopher Springer (Andrew Rubin); neurotic fast-laner Barbara Donnelly (Margaret Whitton), and presidential adviser Jane Parnell (Christine Estabrook). Already living there, besides Mary and Ben, are infantile-but-obnoxious college professor Peter Kincaid (John Bedford-Lloyd) and shlumpy-shleppy Joey Nathan (Daniel Stern) who, unable to function within the Establishment, has found apparent contentment as a cook. He could have become a bookie or a chimney sweep or a missionary, but cooks have better hours.
Reunited, all of them edging fashionably toward middle age (although looking too young to be members of the '60s generation), they sit around and talk . . . and talk . . . and talk. When they've finished doing that, they talk some more. Finally, in a rousing, shocking climax, they talk.
And what they talk about . . . is nothing.
"Hometown" has the same critical flaws that undercut "The Big Chill." Mention J.F.K. here and everyone gets misty-eyed. At no time, though, do you believe or even particularly like these people. At no time are you convinced that these avowed ex-ideologues and soldiers for social justice were ever committed to anything beyond pizza and fun. They are Teflon figures, essentially vapid, narcissistic and uninteresting characters who talk around the edges and wallow in the present.
They continually mope and lament What's Missing in Our Lives.
"Somewhere along the line I made those lucky investments and kind of got sucked up in the mainstream," says tweedy Ben, who became a bookstore owner instead of a writer. "Of course, we all did," says Mary, who passed up professional dancing for quilting, cooking, homemaking and mothering--while still looking great--in Whitely.
And are these people with depth and integrity or not?
So much so that Mary gets last-minute cold feet about marrying Ben, her love of 13 years. Could it be that her heart beats wildly for the rocking Christopher, who just rolled into town? And if she drops Ben for Christopher, what effect will that have on her daughters, who only just found out that she's not married to Ben? Would they cry? She supported J.F.K. and marched for civil rights, for gosh sakes, so what else do they want from her?
Even more critical, would Christopher let Mary bring her quilts to Hollywood? Do they have great farmhouses with spinning wheels on Sunset Boulevard? Do they allow goats? There are many questions to be decided on future episodes of The Big Silly.