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‘Absolutely Fabulous’: Absolute Fright for the States? : Television: Comedy Central adopts a U.K. hit. Can Yanks take two aging hipsters who drink, smoke and shun being role models?

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Those snobby Brits kept calling this the TV show that would never be seen in America. Too outrageous for all those politically correct Yanks.

Well, here it comes anyway--so there.

True, “Absolutely Fabulous” is not exactly the kind of sitcom the U.S. networks are churning out these days. When was the last time a hit comedy centered on two 40ish women who chain-smoke and guzzle booze for breakfast? They even smoke dope without having to suffer horrible consequences--that is, other than looking a bit pathetic.

And the British Broadcasting Corp., which is currently filming its third season of the program, did have one heck of a time finding an American TV company willing to air it--even though it won an International Emmy last year, along with bushels of other awards.

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But the programmers at the Comedy Central cable network ultimately decided it was their kind of show and will begin airing it Sunday.

“As soon as we saw it, we knew it was absolutely right for us,” says Mitch Semel, senior vice president of programming at the cable channel. “For us, it’s dead on target.”

“AbFab,” as its legion of British fans know it, centers on Edina and Patsy (Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley), a pair of trendoids in London’s fashion world, who are desperately fighting off the aging process with an endless whirl of shopping, champagne and all-night clubbing.

Edina is a hedonistic, neurotic fashion publicist who leaps at the first hint of a fad, trying everything from colonic irrigation to isolation tanks to Buddhist chanting. She considers adopting a Romanian orphan and asks if someone can “send up a selection.”

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She has two ex-husbands and a teen-age daughter named Saffron who, as a key comedic element of the show, is far more sensible and adult than her mom.

Patsy, Edina’s best friend, is a wrinkling glamour queen who theoretically works as the fashion director at a women’s magazine, but can’t quite remember where her office is located.

When Saffron questions Edina one morning about how Patsy manages to keep her job, her mother tells her, “Pats has got that job for life.”

Says Saffron, incredulously, “You don’t mean to say she’s actually good at something?”

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“No, darling,” says Edina. “She slept with the publisher.”

“And I’m bloody good at it,” Patsy pipes in.

Patsy then boasts about the importance of her work: “I decide what goes in the magazine. One snap of my fingers and I can raise hemlines so high, the world is your gynecologist.”

In another scene, Edina tells her daughter how disappointed she is that the teen-ager hasn’t had her first sexual experience yet. Says the mother, “Have you read that Kama Sutra I gave you?”

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Saunders, who plays Edina, also writes “AbFab,” which developed out of a short sketch she wrote for a series she was doing with sometime comedy partner Dawn French.

When “AbFab” first aired, the BBC placed it on its out-of-the-mainstream channel, BBC2, thinking that it might build a modest cult following. But supported by critical raves, the show drew such high ratings that it was moved to the more Populist channel, BBC1.

“Maybe one of the things about comedy is that if you set out to make something of huge mass appeal, you’re less likely to make something that really catches fire,” says Jon Plowman, who produced “AbFab” and has since been promoted to head of comedy at the BBC.

He said that when they started work on “AbFab,” there was concern that “an audience outside the square mile of Soho"--the trendy district of London--"would not know what this was about.”

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Clearly, that did not turn out to be a problem, as it is now one of the highest-rated shows in Britain.

But for American viewers, there is the added consideration that references to certain people and places will make no sense. Not to worry. There are enough jokes to keep everyone entertained. Meanwhile, here’s a tip: The frequent mention of Harvey Nichs is a reference to the posh Knightsbridge clothing store Harvey Nichols, a shop that looms large in the lives of Edina and Pats.

Semel, of Comedy Central, doesn’t think his channel’s viewers will be bothered by foreign references and accents and says every episode will run uncut. The cable network will run the first two seasons of “AbFab” (12 episodes in all) and has made a deal for rights to the third, which will air in Britain later this year. Some of those shows were shot in New York recently.

Although the word in Britain was that no U.S. channel would ever run “AbFab,” producer Plowman says he felt they would eventually find an outlet “because it’s been so successful and there are so many channels in the U.S.”

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At the same, however, he said he was “not hugely surprised” by the reaction from the big U.S. networks, where executives repeatedly told him, “We think it’s wonderful, but we could never show it.”

As diplomatically as he can, Plowman notes that the British have always felt that Americans lack a sense of irony--a circumstance, he says, that was reinforced by the reaction to the show by some U.S. broadcasters.

One American programmer told Plowman that the lead characters were not very good “role models.”

Says Plowman, “You just want to say, ‘Yes, that’s the point.’ ”

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* All 12 episodes of “Absolutely Fabulous” will be shown back-to-back Sunday on Comedy Central, beginning at 3 p.m. Next week, two episodes will play Monday through Friday from 8:30 to 9:30 p.m. Then the episodes will be aired at weekly intervals, with airings Saturdays at 4:30 p.m., Sundays at 11 p.m. and Mondays at 8:30 p.m.


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