What hurts deeply in real life--from death to divorce over philandering--often becomes a punch line in sitcoms.
Amazed that her newly single daughter isn't downcast about her ex-mate's womanizing that broke up their marriage, for example, Maggie Winters' mother quips: "Most people would feel like dirt after finding out their husband had been slipping it to that teeth-cleaning trollop."
Given the pain-inflicting adventures of Bill Clinton, how ironic that one of the loudest yuks in "Maggie Winters" accompanies that joke about Maggie's husband sleeping around.
This display of comedy looking for laughs in tragedy--that is, tragedy as an abstraction--is echoed in "The Secret Lives of Men" when a character named Phil wonders if Michael's best friend began sleeping with Michael's former wife before or after they split. "So how long do you think he was nailing her?"
Quality is down, laugh tracks way, way up this season.
The difference in this instance relates to execution, the creators of "Maggie Winters" appearing to have the skills to mine humor from misery, while "Secret Lives of Men" opens with three schnooks on a golf course and never gets out of the rough.
Both comedies premiere tonight, "The Secret Lives of Men" on ABC and generally likable "Maggie Winters" on CBS, followed on that network by the promising debut of the drama "To Have & to Hold."
Think of "Maggie Winters" as "Peggy Sue Got Married" in real time, the dissolution of her urban marriage driving Maggie (Faith Ford) back to her Indiana hometown, where little has changed since high school. She's again in her own room, in her jammies with her stuffed toys, under the wing of her dour mother, Estelle (Shirley Knight), hoping to somehow turn her life around.
Maggie: "Oh, I'm such a mess." Estelle: "Oh, you're not a mess. Wipe your face."
A decade as ditzy Corky on "Murphy Brown" showcased Ford's flair for comedy. She's at her best in "Maggie Winters" when mellowing and not trying to top her material, as she does at times tonight.
And "Maggie Winters" is best and worst when parodying adolescence while recalling the 1980s ambience of Maggie's high school years:
* Best when it turns out that former homecoming queen Maggie's new boss, Rachel Tomlinson (Clea Lewis), retains a grudge from high school, when they were rivals for a guy Rachel still has the hots for. Lewis, ever a bright presence on ABC's "Ellen," tones down her chirpiness only a bit as Rachel, whose job interview with Maggie is a highlight. Maggie gets hired only after promising Rachel, "Bobby's all yours." Rachel: "Swear?"
* Worst, though, when the one-joke premise of Maggie's re-emersion begins wearing thin well before the ending credits, and it becomes apparent that, like its supporting characters who are eternally trapped in high-school mode, this series may have nowhere to go.
Who are All These People?
Now come the new season's whopper family dramas, the most satisfying of which is "To Have & to Hold." Yet that satisfaction is tested numerous times throughout the premiere, which builds toward the Boston marriage of public defender Annie Cornell (Moira Kelly) and police Det. Sean McGrail (Jason Beghe).
If "To Have & to Hold" acquires as many Nielsen rating points as it has McGrails, CBS will have a hit on its hands. But lots of luck keeping them straight.
Here's a shot: Sean's kid brothers, Michael (Jason Wiles) and Tommy (Stephen Largay), are cops, too. His third brother, Patrick (Stephen Lee), is a firefighter and married to Annie's sister. Topping this boisterous Irish-American family tree are the parents, Fiona (Fionnula Flanagan) and Robert (John Cullum). And this does not include the wee youngest of the McGrails.
Much more problematic than sorting out the characters are courtroom sequences that rewrite the ethics of jurisprudence. That includes Annie being involved in a case that pits her against her family-to-be, the trio of McGrail cops, and using cross-examination of her fiance, Sean, to discover what he did at his bachelor party. He pleases her by testifying: "I only have eyes for one woman." Meanwhile, Fiona testifies against Sean, while her other sons look on with amusement. And a judge decides the fate of a defendant without waiting for his attorney.
Fox's admirable "Ally McBeal" creates even more exotic courtroom fantasies, of course, but with a farcical intent that "To Have & to Hold" does not strive for.
So what's to like? Plenty, actually, starting with the characters. And then the cast, notably Kelly (best known for her feature films), whose strong, edgy work infuses every frame she's in (even when the script lets her down), and whose interesting chemistry with the persuasive Beghe is an ingredient few drama series can match.
"To Have & to Hold," moreover, is the only new drama that is truly moving, creating any number of emotional scenes, including one that finds a woman pathetically wanting to drop charges against her abusive husband because "I don't have no one anymore." And a future episode finds Patrick boozing out of control and the family's acerbic patriarch, Robert, becoming a mean-spirited jack-o'-lantern in time for Halloween.
The McGrails are too cutesy cozy at times, and the series has a weakness for happy endings that yank at and nearly uproot your heartstrings. But there are also many good times here to look forward to.
No Good Times in 'Lives of Men'
"The Secret Lives of Men" is devoid of good times. This is one of those witless, single-buddy comedies that richly deserves secrecy. Phil (Brad Whitford), Michael (Peter Gallagher) and Andy (Mitch Rouse) are divorces in Manhattan who live separately but discuss women, play golf and dine together at an Italian restaurant. Like the bunny who sells batteries, they just never stop.
To borrow a metaphor from a coming episode about Phil's bout with impotence, the humor here is as limp as linguine. And so are the brains of these characters, who fret tonight about their pal, Barry, not taking their calls. Boy, are these goofy guys angry about that. And boy, do they talk and talk and talk about it.
The dialogue dives lower and lower, with no improvement shown in two future episodes, one of which has Michael nervous about associating with a gay man and the nincompoopy Andy disclosing that he didn't consummate the extramarital tryst that caused his wife to throw him out. Phil: "If you're gonna get screwed for screwing around, at least screw around." Like Phil's you-know-what in that previous episode, "The Secret Lives of Men" just doesn't work.
* "Maggie Winters" premieres at 8:30 tonight, followed at 9 by "To Have & to Hold," on CBS (Channel 2). The network has rated both series TV-PG-DL (may be unsuitable for young children, with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language).
* "The Secret Lives of Men" premieres at 9 tonight on ABC (Channel 7). The network has rated it TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children, with an advisory for coarse language).