First Step: Admitting It’s Funny

Television is such a house of mirrors that someone truly different stands out in the crowd. Who are prime time’s most original characters?

Surely two of them are HBO’s conflicted mob boss, Tony Soprano, and his predatory mother. Others are Fox’s twiggy neurotic, Ally McBeal, and tortured cop Andy Sipowicz of ABC’s “NYPD Blue.”

Less famous but right there with them is Billie Frank, the playgirl addict of “Rude Awakening,” Showtime’s outrageous, foul-at-times comedy series about drinkers, dopers, smokers and sex. It returns vividly Saturday night for a second season with Sherilyn Fenn again shining as Billie.

Season 1 introduced Billie as a washed-up, out-of-control, blacking-out, sleeping-around, big-boozing TV actress sent to a court-ordered recovery program. It took awhile to get her on the wagon en route to a very tenuous redemption that’s still ongoing.

Although exaggerated, she’s spun from reality.

Billie is the near incarnation of former epic drinker Claudia Lonow, 34, the onetime “Knots Landing” actress--she played Michele Lee’s daughter for five seasons--who created “Rude Awakening” for Showtime.


And Billie in her own image.

From her midteens to her early 20s, Lonow snorted coke, drank out of control, and that wasn’t all. Like Billie, says Lonow, one of the show’s executive producers: “I was an infamous slut.”

Just as the funny drunk was once a darling of TV comedy, alcoholics on the mend have also gotten exposure in prime time. Sipowicz himself is in recovery, for example, as is Det. Lennie Briscoe of NBC’s “Law & Order.” And on NBC in the mid-'90s was “The John Larroquette Show,” a sitcom with Larroquette as a reformed lush running a crummy bus terminal.

The kinship between Larroquette’s show and “Rude Awakening” ends with alcohol, however.

Whereas his series projected a dark, seedy gloom through much of its life, with fun appearing almost out of the question, characters in high-energy “Rude Awakening” have fun all the time.

In addition, political correctness be damned, Billie is unrepentant, and constantly tempting her boyfriend and fellow 12-step programmer, Dave (Jonathan Penner), to jump off the wagon with her. She’s a vulnerable royal pain whom he’s somehow attracted to even though she personifies his own addiction.

Unlike what faced Larroquette’s John Hemingway, booze co-stars with Billie in this comedy where her monied, flagrantly shocking, chain-smoking 6-foot mother on a slant, Trudy--played to the tipsy hilt by Lynn Redgrave--is herself a promiscuous alcoholic who is rarely without a drink or flask in hand.

Just as there are consequences for Billie’s behavior, some will surface this season for Trudy, described by Lonow as one of those alcoholics “who live to be very old by navigating their lives around their drinking.”

This is not “Days of Wine and Roses.” Yet it’s as grim in some ways despite being a comedy, one that uses addictive behavior for joke fodder in ways that deglamorize it.

“Rude Awakening” exited last season, for example, with a cliffhanger having Billie’s best friend and Dave’s sweet, goofy lesbian roommate, Jackie (Richard Pryor’s daughter Rain Pryor), overdose on heroin. Saturday’s premiere opens with Dave trying to argue Billie out of taking a drink when they are called to the hospital, where four-time rehabber Jackie is in a coma. While waiting for her to awaken and pondering a trip to a nearby bar, they speak as passionately of alcohol as one would a lover.

Dave: “I like the sound the glass makes when the bartender puts it on the counter. I like the way it feels in my hand. I bring it in close, and I can smell it, and a wave of relief goes through my body even before I take the first sip.”

Billie: “You’re slow. I’d be on my third one by now.”

Dave: “And then it feels so good as it goes down my throat, even though I know I’m going to be puking the next morning.”

It’s a comedy of special merit that compels you to watch even when not trying to be funny. If only “Rude Awakening” were this good all the time.

Instead, Karen Black’s appearance Saturday as Jackie’s Jerry Garcia-revering mother (“It’s hard to be a Deadhead when the head Dead is dead”) is unevenly successful. Other early episodes this season, moreover, dwell largely on such characters as Billie’s spineless brother and grating sister-in-law, Tish (Corinne Bohrer), a cartoonishly devout Christian who goes into labor and gives birth in the humorless second episode. And in an unpleasant coming episode that succeeds only in setting a TV record for coarse penis synonyms, Billie’s Jewish parents (playing her father is Lonow’s stepfather, Mark Lonow) ignore Tish’s strong objections by trying to impose circumcision on her newborn son.

More worthy is a coming episode about drug grime with Roger Daltrey as a rock superstar addict who is fawned over disruptively at a meeting of Billie’s and Dave’s rehab group.

That, too, comes from Lonow’s own experience in Los Angeles, where her problems began with cocaine. “I was kind of a chunky teenager on television and trying to lose weight, and that was one way I dealt with it,” she said. “And that kinda made me edgy, so I started drinking to counterbalance that. Irish coffee was my drink. It looks like your having coffee, and you can put lots of sweetener in it.”

And when her “Knots Landing” run ended?

“I was really a drunk. I would drop off all my clothes at the dry cleaners and forget which one. Crazy things like that. And I was running out of money. I realized I was coming to a point when my life would radically change. I had a moment of clarity when I knew that I would not be able to handle this if I’m still drinking and doing drugs. I realized I had to get some help.”

After a year of struggle and receiving therapy from self-help groups, she got sober. Which returns us to Billie and her own boisterous rehab, which Lonow says is much closer to reality than some might think.

“I’ve seen depictions of these meetings when everyone is dour and nobody is laughing,” Lonow said. “But that was not my experience. Actually, I had love affairs and crises while getting sober. It was one of the most fun times I’ve had in my life. Most of the people in the 12-step program were life-of-the-party types who put the lampshade on their head. One of the ways that people recover is by learning how to laugh at themselves. If you go to one of these self-help groups and you tell your tale of woe that you cheated on your wife, someone will say, ‘That’s nothing. I cheated on my wife with her sister.’ ”

That’s why it’s rim shots and recovery for Billie, a TV character like no other.

* “Rude Awakening” can be seen at 10 p.m. Saturday on Showtime. The network has rated it TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17).