TV REVIEW : More Insults Than Laughs

Fox's new comedy "Drexell's Class" finds Dabney Coleman playing a nasty teacher who torments his fifth-grade students and is tormented by them.

Right man, wrong milieu.

In tonight's premiere, Otis Drexell's adult nemesis, Principal Itkin (Randy Graff), designates him an "unredeemable low-life." That's familiar territory to Coleman, who crafted insincerity and despicability into high art as the conniving mayor in "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman," the mean-spirited talk show host in "Buffalo Bill," the self-serving sports writer in "The 'Slap' Maxwell Story" and the sexist boss in the movie "9 to 5."

Just like Drexell, all of them are men you love to see get their comeuppance.

But the first episode of "Drexell's Class" goes poorly, registering some mean insults but too few laughs while introducing Drexell as someone who is indeed redeemable, even as he indicates that he loathes the snots in his class and is teaching only as a last resort.

The plot has Drexell conniving to save his job by persuading his students to play-act through a class evaluation by Principal Itkin and the school board president. The plan appears to go awry, but doesn't. The sappy conclusion is hopelessly contrived.

When Drexell's foil is the principal, no problem. In the classroom, however, there's a big problem, in that you're not sure who you're supposed to like or dislike most. At times some of the students are even nastier than Drexell, and you'd rather hit them with a cream pie than him. But when he does attack with taunts and sarcasm, it's a mismatch because, after all, they're just kids.

"This is war, Mr. Drexell," one of his students declares.

"Oh, that sounds scary," he replies. "What's it going to be, cap guns at dawn?"

More to the point, this series may turn out to be a cap gun.

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