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Judd Hirsch in ‘Dear John': Good Therapy

What a five-star farce!

“Dear John” begins--and almost immediately the funny one-liners hit the fan. Premiering at 9 tonight on Channels 4, 36 and 39, it starts good, then gets very good before getting better.

The somber protagonist of NBC’s new comedy is teacher John Lacey (Judd Hirsch), who seeks solace in the One-to-One therapy club after his wife leaves him for his best friend. Instead of answers, though, he finds absurdity.

The executive producers here are Peter Noah, Ed. Weinberger and Bob Ellison, the latter two having been affiliated with the late, great “Taxi,” which in broad strokes gave Hirsch the same environment he now has in “Dear John.”

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The setting is different, yet Hirsch is once again an earnest, essentially straight hero amid extravagantly goofy caricatures, the exception being a woman named Kate (Isabella Hofmann) who’s sure to become John’s love interest.

His other fellow One-to-One members include the timid Ralph (Harry Groener) and the hilariously neurotic Kirk (Jere Burns), one of those macho, oily, medallioned, super-cool singles clubbers who always look the other way and cruise the room with their eyes as they talk to you. Here is a face just begging for a cream pie.

Kirk to John: “All right, stick wit me--yer gonna make it like a bandit!”

With her interest in kinkiness, easily titillated, therapy leader Louise Mercer (Jane Carr) becomes another marvelously bizarre component, her lascivious queries about “ sexual problems” delivered with a twitching and pronounced British accent.

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Hirsch’s stoniness plays perfectly against Burns’ and Carr’s wonderful outrageousness in this highly promising first episode, whose funny script by Ellison and Noah was expertly directed by James Burrows.

Inspired by a British series, “Dear John” will air at 9 p.m. until Oct. 27, when it moves into a regular 9:30 p.m. spot behind “Cheers.” Given their enormous promotional boost from NBC’s Olympic coverage and their golden time slot in NBC’s top-rated Thursday-night schedule, John and his fellow One-to-Oners have an excellent chance to make it. Like a bandit.

Here’s additional encouraging news. That KTLA Channel 5’s new syndicated comedies are only mildly dumb represents a major improvement in the genre that usually occupies the 7:30 p.m. time period.

Tonight brings “Starting From Scratch,” a British-inspired comedy about a small-town veterinarian (Bill Daily) who immediately gets down to the important business of being beleaguered by his zany two kids (Heidi Helmer and Jason Marin, his zany former wife (Connie Stevens) and his zany assistant (Nina Talbot).

The premiere mainly introduces the characters while smothering modestly funny lines in sweetened laughter. The production company also provided a review cassette of the fourth episode, which has the zany kids fixing up their futzy and reluctant single dad with dates, the zany ex-wife hanging around like a piece of furniture and a zany snake escaping from a box. Or is that a writer?

By far the best moments in both episodes are between those two pros Talbot and Daily, who is a master at being funnier than the lines he’s reciting. On this series, the challenge seems especially large.

Channel 5 also has something for deja vu buffs in “The Munsters Today,” a revival of “The Munsters” series that ran on CBS from 1964 to 1966 and still endures in reruns. Yes, let’s remake more of those classics.

Premiering Friday, “The Munsters Today” reprises an eclectic family of lovable monsters who consider themselves normal, even though they live in a musty, cobwebby, Gothic mansion and frighten everyone with their odd looks and behavior.

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Herman (John Schuck) is the Frankenstein-like man of the house. Lily (Lee Meriwether) is his vampire wife. Eddie (Jason Marsden) is their werewolf son. Count Dracula-like Grandpa (Howard Morton) is Lily’s 350-year-old father. Marilyn (Hilary Van Dyke) is the young niece, considered a sort of mutant because she looks like regular society.

On the premiere, the guileless Herman whips up a batch of “Transylvania Surprise” for a cooking contest with inevitably disastrous results. This is comedy at its broadest and most predictable, occasionally amusing, rarely funny, but always harmless and likable.

If this neo-ghoulishness catches on, will “The Addams Family Today” be next?

Already behind us is Tuesday’s premiere on Channel 5 of “My Secret Identity,” whose protagonist is a cute, toothy high school student (Jerry O’Connell) who achieves the super powers of his comic-book heroes.

Calling himself Ultraman, he is nearly impervious to physical pain, can levitate and moves with such speed that it takes him only five seconds to whip his messy room into shape. Best of all, he can use his super powers to help rescue young girls from distress, as he did in the premiere.

If nothing else, “My Secret Identity” is pleasing nonsense that feeds everyone’s secret fantasies, albeit in different ways.

Faced with the choice of rescuing the girl or secretly floating outside the window of an apartment where a young woman is undressing, our hero rescues the girl. Surely a mistake in judgment that maturity will ultimately rectify.


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