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Humor Not Always Part of Deal in ‘Arli$$’

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TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

I know “The Larry Sanders Show,” and “Arli$$” is no Larry.

Now that HBO has an all-universe comedy series that artfully blurs fiction and reality, HBO newcomers that try the same approach are bound to suffer by comparison.

That’s one big obstacle facing “Arli$$,” Robert Wuhl’s new comedy about the big-bucks dealings of a smarmy, high-powered Los Angeles sports agent whose superstar clients earn him as many headaches as gaudy commissions.

Another is that “Arli$$” would come up short even if there weren’t Garry Shandling’s Larry to match it against. It tops out at mildly funny and is infrequently even that, suffering from clashing tones and from too much Wuhl.

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Primarily known for his stand-up comedy, Wuhl is one of the show’s executive producers and also plays its central character, Arliss Michaels, who never met a lucrative deal he couldn’t make. Early episodes find him getting an undeserved humanitarian award, being sucked into a betting scam, courting a high school basketball phenom, seeking to quiet a sex scandal threatening a devoutly religious quarterback and learning that his male skating client wants to marry another man.

“Arli$$” follows the lead of “The Larry Sanders Show” in mingling its fictional characters with actual stars, the difference being that they’re mostly jocks who can’t act.

The sports-agent premise is promising but bellows for someone in the lead who can underplay (like Shandling, perhaps?) against the titanic sports industry that nourishes such operators as Michaels. Instead, when things begin getting interesting inside the tony warrens of the Michaels empire, Wuhl inevitably kills the moment by hamming it up and going broad.

Either that or the script itself dies, something possibly in store for “Arli$$” should it not improve.

* “Arli$$” premieres at 10 tonight on HBO.

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