Fox's Sunday night all-stars "The Simpsons," "King of the Hill" and "The X-Files" remain the most distinctive two-hour bloc in prime time. Otherwise, Fox's famous cutting edges have softened as the once-maverick network has narrowed the audience gap between it and the older and bigger three networks.
That routineness applies to Monday night's premiere of the stylish but barren "Ally McBeal." And also to tonight's newcomers: the weak buddy comedy "Between Brothers" and "413 Hope St.," a formulaic drama about a bustling help center for the crisis-ridden younger set in New York City.
Fox has already faced its own new-season crisis. "Rewind," the comedy originally scheduled to open its Thursday nights this fall as a lead-in to "Between Brothers," didn't make it even to the start of the season, having already been replaced by the returning "Living Single" and dispatched by Fox to limboland for retooling.
Given that Fox found the infantile "Between Brothers" fit to air, one can only imagine how obscenely insipid "Rewind" had to have been not to make the cut.
"Between Brothers" is another of TV's broad African American comedies populated largely by buffoons, this one opening with a script too witless and humorless for its capable cast to overcome.
Housemates as well as bachelor brothers, James Winston (Dondre Whitfield) is a real estate agent and Charles (Kadeem Hardison) a sportswriter. Their friends are Dusty (Kelly Perine), a TV weatherman, and Mitchell (Tommy Davidson), a junior high school teacher whose over-the-top escapades drive much of the premiere.
After Mitchell's second wife kicks him out, he insists on moving in with James and Charles, who don't want him and push him off on the doofus Dusty, who also evicts him, forcing him to return to the Winstons.
The episode's other epic hand-wringer finds Charles listing Dusty instead of James on a form as someone to contact on his behalf in the event of an emergency. Devastated by this slight, James tries to earn Charles' trust and respect so that he will be listed on the form instead of Dusty. The plot is that deep.
Comedies about nothing can be wonderful in the right hands--the archetype being NBC's "Seinfeld," which one season aired several episodes spoofing its own reputation for feasting on nonsense. But anyone who has seen "Seinfeld" will know immediately that "Between Brothers" is no "Seinfeld." NBC's "Men Behaving Badly" is a closer match.
"Between Brothers" faces NBC's promising new sitcom "Union Square," the bold new drama "Nothing Sacred" on ABC and the returning "Promised Land" on CBS, with counter-programming Fox betting, apparently, that African Americans are so undiscerning that they will watch something just because it's black. Even this.
Just who watches the downtrodden and the saviors of "413 Hope St." depends in part on the appeal of ABC's unconventional new "Cracker" and hum-drum holdover "Diagnosis Murder" on CBS. Don't bank on it denting its time slot foes on NBC: "Seinfeld" and the boisterous new Kirstie Alley sitcom, "Veronica's Closet."
"413 Hope St." creates its own din, its crisis count noisily mounting as the hour drags toward an unnaturally tidy conclusion. Before that happens, a drug addict goes berserk, a woman is hurled from a window to her death and an ailing youth becomes suicidal after a Catholic priest informs him during confession that his AIDS is "divine intervention" and God's punishment for his "sins."
Yes, another of TV's clergy, someone whose heartlessness compares poorly with the compassion of the center's secular staff.
They include a psychologist (Jesse Martin) whose devotion to victims of the mean streets removes him from his loving wife; a counselor (Shari Headley) with a sweet yen to be a mommy; a lawyer (Kelly Coffield) with a comic yen to be a dancer; and the center's stern founder and administrator (Richard Roundtree), whose irritating yen for orderliness has to be weighed against the tragedy of his young son being murdered by gangbangers for his sneakers.
"413 Hope St." was created by Damon Wayans, much better known for movie and TV comedy ("In Living Color") than for drama. On the positive side, some of the premiere and its characters are initially involving, and the depiction of the crack-head culture is realistically grim and lethal.
Yet this is turf that TV and theatrical movies have gone over so many times, and in such similar ways, that "413 Hope St." ultimately comes across as derivative and redundant. Unless, of course, misery softened by sentiment is something you just can't resist.
* "Between Brothers" premieres at 8:30 tonight, followed by "413 Hope St." at 9 on Fox (Channel 11).