TV REVIEWS : 'Flesh 'N Blood' Bombards Easy Targets

TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

NBC's "Flesh 'N Blood" is at once funny and infuriating.

Funny, because it appears to be one of those rare comedies where everything writing, directing and acting--absolutely clicks.

Infuriating, because the butts of its humor on tonight's premiere (at 10 on Channels 4, 36 and 39) are often religion and ruralism, which for years have been among the softest, easiest targets of television entertainment. Hollywood seems unable to shed its biases and narrow-mindedness.

"Flesh 'N Blood," which returns Friday in its regular 9:30 p.m. time period, extends prime time's long tradition of culture-clash comedy, as urbane assistant state's attorney Rachel Brennan (Lisa Darr) is reunited in Baltimore with her long-lost brother, Arlo Weed (David Keith).

Although she had sought the reunion, Rachel is shocked to learn that the brother she has never seen is a shifty Florida bumpkin who looks, sounds and acts like the uncouth yokel he is. Naturally, he invades her life and house with his environmentally stunted 11-year-old daughter, Beauty (Meghan Andrews), and witless 16-year-old son, King (Chris Stacy), pigging out on pork rinds, soaking his camper transmission in her tub and scaring off a witness crucial to a case that Rachel hopes will rocket her to political stardom.

Oh, those hayseed simpletons.

The writing by series creators Lawrence Gay and Michael J. DiGaetano is cracklingly sharp and witty. The direction by James Burrows--a consultant to the show along with fellow "Cheers" creators Glen Charles and Les Charles--is superb. And not only do Keith and Darr work this material into a comic frenzy, they also get excellent support from Peri Gilpin as Rachel's shrill secretary and Perry Anzilotti as her skeptical investigator, Marty.

So what's the beef? This:

If you're baffled by complaints that prime time is almost always anti-church--when religion is mentioned at all--"Flesh 'N Blood" should erase the mystery. There are four references to Christianity or God in the first episode, each producing a big laugh, starting with Arlo's discovery that Rachel is his sister ("Praise Jesus in the Book of Job, my prayers have been answered!") and ending with Beauty quoting the Scriptures. Rachel reacts to this as if Beauty is from Mars.

As funny as they may be, moreover, the preponderance of jokes are hick humor--ridicule that not only reflects the typical urbanite's contempt for rural folk but also seems to share it. Arlo is shrewd, all right, but less dumb like a fox tonight than dumb like a lox.

Marty, seeing Arlo in Rachel's house: "What's your brother doing here?"

Rachel: "He couldn't get into the motel."

Marty: "Did the doorknob confuse him?"

In another very funny scene, Rachel is riding with Arlo in his camper as they search for the missing Beauty. She suddenly realizes where the girl is hiding.

Rachel: "Turn around."

Arlo twists his body so that he's facing the rear window.

Rachel, angrily: "The truck! The truck! The truck! The truck!"

Arlo: "Like I'm some kind of mind reader."

Like anything as frivolous as TV comedy should be concerned about stereotypes, right? Yes. If even the bright people behind "Flesh 'N Blood" routinely perpetuate such caricatures, then what can we expect from the industry's real-life Arlos who produce series instead of merely being ridiculed by them?

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