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TV Reviews : NBC’s Strongest Evening of the Week Has Its Weak Spot

TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

In a single evening, NBC goes from one extreme to the other. NBC has flat-out the best comedy series of the new season in “Friends” and flat-out one of the worst in “Madman of the People.” Each premieres tonight in a lineup that, despite “Madman,” promises to be the network’s strongest of the week.

Meanwhile, NBC’s “Martin Short Show,” whose second episode aired Tuesday, is flat-out flat, as well as baffling and disappointing.

The sexy, urbane “Friends"--from Marta Kauffman, David Crane and Kevin Bright, the people responsible for the HBO super-comedy “Dream On"--starts fairly strongly tonight, improves next Thursday and in week three gets on a grand, hilarious, rip-roaring roll. It’s the perfect series to bridge “Mad About You” and “Seinfeld.”

Its premiere has the burden of sorting out the major characters in this communal comedy, six singles in the their 20s who spend much of their time slouching around--in their spacious pad and in the casual cafe/coffee house where some of them work--talking about being single. It sounds vacuous, and it is, sort of, but wittily vacuous, with crisply written dialogue adroitly executed by the show’s strong ensemble cast: Courteney Cox, David Schwimmer, Jennifer Aniston, Matthew Perry, Lisa Kudrow and Matt LeBlanc.

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“I can hardly stop smiling,” one roomie says. “I can see that,” another responds. “It looks like you slept with a hanger in your mouth.”

If there is a hub character here, it is Cox’s Monica, an assistant chef whose passive brother (Schwimmer) moves in with the group after his wife leaves him for a woman. All of the characters are likable and funny, though.

Given that the cafe and apartment look somewhat alike--and that the schmoozing and blizzard of acerbic one-liners occur in both places--juxtaposing these locales gets confusing. And the notion that all of these attractive people would remain platonic while flopping around together is a bit far-fetched. Yet these are nit-picks, and “Friends” has so many good moves that there’s really nothing to dislike. It’s all so light and frothy that after each episode you may be hard-pressed to recall precisely what went on, except that you laughed a lot.

And look, no hanger.

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*

“Madman of the People” is something you’d like to mothball and hang in a vault indefinitely. It has a great time slot following the enormous hit “Seinfeld,” but little wit or intelligence with which to fill it.

Instead, it’s one of the fall season’s least likable new comedies, squandering Dabney Coleman in a near humorless half hour about an abrasive hotshot magazine columnist who finds himself working for his daughter when she becomes publisher. He doesn’t like it.

Coleman has made a living being snide and insulting for laughs. A master at it, he has played obnoxious TV characters before, but usually in comedies (“Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” “Buffalo Bill” and “The ‘Slap’ Maxwell Story”) that had the redeeming virtue of being funny. Here, as star columnist Jack Buckner--who lives for ticking people off in print and in person--he is obnoxious minus any of the good stuff, a cynical iconoclast whose caustic digs are nasty without being comical or even clever.

“Madman of the People” is black comedy sans the comedy.

Right away tonight, Jack clashes with his daughter, Meg (Cynthia Gibb), over matters ranging from trivial to serious, including her decision to oust one of his best friends, the magazine’s inept music critic. The dismissal scene irritatingly careens over the top before weakly concluding with a stab at gooey sentiment.

In fact, it’s a tossup which is the more grating locale: the magazine office or the Buckner home, which Jack shares with his inhumanly patient wife, Delia (Concetta Tomei), and their 24-year-old ne’er-do-well son, Dylan (John Ales). A second daughter and her schnook of a husband also surface tonight.

Things get worse. As bad as the premiere is, it is absolutely brilliant compared to the second episode, which finds Jack accused by his family and angry neighbors of killing a robin whose chirping kept him awake at night. A withering cross-fire of dead animal and cheap sex jokes ensues, leading to another maudlin finale--prompting you to conclude that euthanasia would be best for the entire series.

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“We can make this work,” Meg assures her father. Unlikely. With “Seinfeld” as a brawny lead-in, “Madman of the People” may thrive in the ratings, but if episodes 1 and 2 are representative, it will never work.

*

The only thing that worked in last Thursday’s debut of “The Martin Short Show” was a “Dave” parody starring Short’s marvelous mega-nerd character, pointy haired Ed Grimley. Unfortunately, the rest of the show might have been written by Grimley, I must say.

The second episode on Tuesday--with Steve Martin playing himself, but as an egomaniacal sex addict--was better, yet still less than you’d expect from a half hour deploying Martin and Short, two of the best physical comics in the universe, on the same stage.

Joining Short in this epic talent pool are regulars Jan Hooks and Short’s fellow “SCTV” alumnus, Andrea Martin. In fact, Tuesday’s episode was a sort of “SCTV” reunion, initially featuring a moderately funny reprise of an old “SCTV” quiz show spoof, “Half-Wits.” Former “SCTV” star Eugene Levy repeated his quiz-master role while also directing the episode.

The structure of “The Martin Short Show” is disorienting, even messy. Short plays himself as the star of a TV show, even using real-life anecdotes to create the impression that the NBC series is autobiographical. Yet Hooks, who isn’t Short’s wife, plays his wife, a fictional actress whose professional name is Meg Harper.

This show-within-a-show format has its roots in the comedy of Jack Benny, Burns and Allen and, more recently, “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show” on Showtime and Shandling’s phenomenal current series, “The Larry Sanders Show” on HBO. The difference is that “The Martin Short Show,” which Short executive produces himself, does it ineptly.

With so much performing talent, and a production staff whose credits include “SCTV,” “The Larry Sanders Show” and “The Simpsons,” Short’s series should be much funnier than it is. Wall-to-wall Ed Grimley would be a welcome alternative.

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* “Friends” premieres at 8:30 and “Madman of the People” at 9:30 tonight on NBC (Channels 4, 36 and 39). “The Martin Short Show” airs Tuesdays at 8:30 on NBC.


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