When they close the pop trivia books on the '90s, one of the strangest phenomena therein will be that of Steve Urkel--the "supernerd"-next-door character on ABC's "Family Matters" sitcom. Young viewers have taken in a big way to this hyper-articulate, irrepressible little pest who talks like a cross between Alvin the chipmunk and Pat the hermaphrodite, and who wears his pants as if planning a walk through the Sepulveda basin.
For those who want to see a little more of the man behind the geek, "The Jaleel White Special" (at 8 tonight on ABC, Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42) gives its likable young actor a chance to be further cute still, mostly as himself sans the high-pitched caricature--though the Urkel character puts in a number of token appearances, often alongside his portrayer in a seamless split-screen effect.
The movie-within-a-special premise has White creating his own romantic feature film in which he attempts to romance classmate Tatyana Ali and fend off the bullying of her taller, older boyfriend, Bumper Robinson. Guest stars include Little Richard as a flamboyant fortune teller, Flip Wilson as a tux salesman and Shari Belafonte as a generous florist.
Musical numbers pop up, with mixed results: Playing White's principal, Nell Carter breaks into a rousingly brassy show tune, while, less successfully, his older sister, Vanessa Williams (!), sings a balladic paean to visualization ("Pure Imagination," borrowed from "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory") that is strangely incongruous here. Though not part of the plot, Kid 'N Play also contribute a rap tune.
For the target audience, this slight silliness should prove reasonably amusing, and the best moments predictably come with the Urkel character turning into a gawky rapper who comments on the proceedings--"kind of like a geek chorus," as White deadpans. Older viewers, on the other hand, will likely find the recurring classic-movie spoofs in White's fantasy sequences unduly lame, despite the enticing sight of Flip Wilson's Geraldine waltzing into a black-and-white "Casablanca" scenario.
Urkel's (and White's) shticky star will no doubt continue to rise with this added exposure; Arnold Horshack never had it so good.