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CBS Unveils Dorky ‘Dweebs,’ ‘Bonnie Hunt,’ Gloomy ‘Gothic’

CBS is getting more eclectic as it seeks to attract younger viewers and shed its reputation for antiquity.

Take tonight, for example. The three series that CBS launches are “Dweebs,” an uneven, flip-floppy disc of a comedy about computer nerds; “The Bonnie Hunt Show,” an amusing, uncommonly bright, urbane and distinctive comedy about a TV reporter, and “American Gothic,” a dark, gloomy, largely unrewarding science-fiction drama centering on a sinister sheriff.

In addition, two other new series take flight this weekend. Much more inviting than “American Gothic” is “Space: Above and Beyond,” the entertaining, rock ‘em-sock ‘em science-fiction adventure arriving Sunday on Fox. Fox’s young spaceniks also soar above Saturday’s humdrum premiere of “JAG,” an NBC series whose hero is a Navy lawyer who boldly uncovers wrongdoing for the Judge Advocate General. “Dweebs” is prime-time’s version of Windows 95, delivering occasional bytes of humor while introducing the misfits who work at a software firm and the computer-illiterate woman who has just been hired as office manager. Asked about computer Windows, she earnestly replies: “I don’t do windows.”

The owner of Cyberbyte Inc. is Walter Mosby (Peter Scolari), an eccentric genius who rides a moped, thinks creatively while bouncing on a trampoline and is so tongue-tied that he rarely completes a sentence.

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Equally neurotic are the socially dysfunctional men who work for him but somehow see that freshly arrived office manager (Farrah Forke) as their matriarchal mentor.

Adrift in a universe she doesn’t understand, she relates to a girlfriend some of the relentless computer-speak about discs that she hears at work. “With all this talk about something very floppy and hard,” the friend asks, “shouldn’t we be having a better time?”

The bigger question is whether viewers should be having a better time. Walter and his cohorts are broad stereotypes who feed the illusion of technophiles being automatically nerdy and male when, in fact, the serious computer crowd encompasses both genders and is now part of society’s mainstream.

Potentially more problematic, though, is that the premiere, after starting fast, begins downloading well before the final credits, making you wonder if this one-joke comedy has a long-term future.

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If it doesn’t, it may also sink “The Bonnie Hunt Show,” the vastly more promising newcomer that it precedes.

Hunt is effortlessly super in a series that’s an anomaly--refreshingly bucking today’s prime-time surge of stand-up comics and strung-together jokes while rooting itself in the grand tradition of earlier sitcoms that valued story lines as much as punch lines.

It’s also the season’s riskiest new comedy, with Hunt, a gifted Second City alumna, as TV reporter Bonnie Kelly, wittily improvising her way through supposedly live remotes with non-actors. These fidgety jump-cut sequences play like outtakes, and their Letterman-esque mischief is no accident. The series is produced by David Letterman’s company, and Rob Burnett, a former head writer for Letterman’s late-night show on CBS, was co-executive producer with Hunt before leaving after several tapings.

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“The Bonnie Hunt Show” is one of those endangered prime-time species whose acting, directing (John Bowab) and writing (Hunt) resonate harmoniously, its best moments uniting Bonnie and her best friend (Holly Wortell), the station’s makeup artist, in comical dialogues that chaotically overlap and run together so naturally that they seem unscripted. It’s also that rare series that can briefly drop its levity and pause for reflection without turning maudlin or manipulative.

Lacking a true killer gag in its first two episodes, “The Bonnie Hunt Show” may never be as funny as “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” the medium’s preeminent comedy series about TV newscasters. But it has more credibility in its Chicago TV newsroom. It’s here where blond-tressed, blue-blazered, trench-coated, fresh-from-Wisconsin Bonnie nervously arrives in her TV uniform to begin a new job in a city that’s a pressure cooker of local news. She’s the complete package: a face the camera loves and a bundle of neuroses that yield good comedy.

The news boss (Mark Derwin) is handsome and aloof; the boss’s executive assistant (Janet Carroll) is a nasty witch and the camera guy (Tom Virtue), videotape guy (Eamonn Roche) and coffee guy (Brian Howe) are silly, but not too silly. A limo driver (Don Lake) is the show’s only overcooked character.

The second episode finds Bonnie going on a messy pizza-tasting binge as part of a live remote from an Italian restaurant. “It’s OK,” she assures a family eyeing her sauce-smeared face from another table. “Professional journalist.”

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Here’s a TV reporter you can trust. Tape at 8:30.

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“American Gothic” requires patience as well as trust. Patience, to endure this opening hour, which plods and meanders en route to a negligible payoff. Trust, that the series will improve, while building on Gary Cole’s persuasive evil as creepy, amoral North Carolina Sheriff Lucas Buck, who opens by coolly snapping the neck of deranged teen-ager Merlyn Temple (Sarah Paulson) after her father creams her with a shovel to shut her up.

But enough about the humor.

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There is something faintly Twin Peaksian about the occultness of “American Gothic,” which was created by, of all people, ex-icon of the squeaky-clean teen set, Shaun Cassidy.

For some wicked reason, the sheriff wants to frame Merlyn’s hapless father to gain custody of his younger son, Caleb (Lucas Black). So what if the local schoolmarm appears to be sleeping with Sheriff Buck, and his deputy is too cowardly to blab what he knows about his boss? Little Caleb has powerful allies. The lad is initially able to elude Buck, thanks to sage advice written in blood by his dead sister (she didn’t have a magic marker?) and the help of a local doctor, Matt Crower (Jake Weber). Also on Caleb’s side is his cousin, determined newspaper reporter Gail Emory (Paige Turco).

Tough odds for the sheriff. When you’re a demon, though, being outnumbered means little.

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Being outnumbered means even less to the courageous Marine Corps fighter pilots resisting an alien takeover of Earth in the futuristic “Space: Above and Beyond,” an enjoyable galaxy of action and intrigue from Glen Morgan and James Wong, former executive producers of “The X-Files” on Fox.

Set in the year 2063, “Space” is escapist fun that wisely emphasizes humans over tedious technology while depicting the dare-devilish adventures of a demographically pristine squadron of young people that resembles an intergalactic version of “The Mod Squad.”

“Get your heads screwed on right!” an older mentor growls at them.

Morgan Weisser, Kristen Cloke, Rodney Rowland, Lanei Chapman and Joel de la Fuente play young cadets thrown together at boot camp, and James Morrison plays the flying ace who will ultimately lead them into combat.

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In a clumsy metaphor for today’s racism, the producers make Rowland’s character an “In Vitro,” a member of a test-tube-bred minority that faces discrimination. But it’s Lee Ermey who initially energizes “Space” as an in-your-face drill instructor only slightly ratcheted down from the despotic one he played in “Full Metal Jacket.”

Once past these preliminaries, the premiere of “Space” becomes a fairly exciting air combat film, aided by dogfights, persuasive special effects and an ambush on Mars that costs a flier’s life but nets one of those mysterious aliens who is omnipotent enough to clobber even Earth’s most menacing air combat corps, the Angry Angels.

Seductively underpinning this action is the threat of the unknown, the murky, unplumbed darkness of the unfamiliar that we all fear. Neither the aliens nor their precise agenda is identified in the premiere, letting us massage our imaginations. It works. Initially, at least, “Space” has its head screwed on right.

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So did “Magnum P.I.” and “Quantum Leap,” series created by by Donald P. Bellisario--raising hopes for “JAG,” his latest rendering for NBC. Those hopes go unfulfilled in its two-hour premiere, a routine movie that hardly merits the time given it. A trimmer “JAG” may be more watchable.

Former “Melrose Place” hunk David James Elliott plays Lt. Harmon Rabb Jr., ace of the Navy’s judge advocate general corps of military lawyers who are sent around the globe to investigate criminal cases involving the U.S. military. This TV cousin of “A Few Good Men” also features, starting in Episode 2, a good JAG woman in Lt. Meg Austin (Tracey Needham).

The mysterious death of another Navy woman, a flier assigned to a carrier in the Adriatic Sea, is the catalyst that introduces Rabb, as he breezes in and launches an investigation that winds up being encumbered by the presence of a news reporter. The female pilot has disappeared overboard. Accident, suicide or murder?

The premiere has a nice look, but not nice enough to compensate for a plot that lacks suspense and features a mystery whose culprit should be so obvious that you may suspect a red herring. As it turns out, the only herring is the story.

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* “Dweebs” premieres at 8 tonight, with “The Bonnie Hunt Show” at 8:30 p.m. and “American Gothic” at 10 p.m. on CBS (Channel 2).

* “JAG” premieres Saturday at 8 p.m. on NBC (Channels 4 and 36).

* “Space: Above and Beyond” premieres Sunday at 7 p.m. on Fox (Channel 11).


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