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Stamos is a likable rogue in airy ‘Jake’

Times Staff Writer

Here is John Stamos, back from the television dead in “Jake in Progress,” a new series from ABC (previewing Sunday before taking its regular post Thursday), and looking very well indeed. As someone who has never watched a single episode of “Full House,” the series that kept him busy with the Olsen twins for the better part of a decade -- really, I would tell you if I had -- I can’t compare the post-teen idol to the boyish grown man. I do have a hazy memory of him in the short-lived “Thieves” a few years back, but for me Stamos was just a name that temporarily modified “Rebecca” and “Romijn.”

But he makes a good impression here, in a role that fits him like the tailored designer suits he gets to wear playing it. As big-time New York City publicist Jake Phillips -- spinning facts, keeping gates, throwing parties for movie stars, sports figures and other generators of pop cultural buzz and cash -- while leading a life of extreme dating only lightly dusted with the desire for something deep and permanent, he is a sort of Alfie-lite: too nice to be a cad, exactly, he is vain and self-centered (“She canceled,” he says of a called-off date, “came down with shingles -- why does everything have to happen to me?”) but ultimately impelled to do the right thing.

It’s an imperfect but nevertheless charming show -- a hair this side of inspired, a shade too careful, not exactly original, but with a synergy between the writing, acting and production that patches the holes and keeps it buoyant.

The series will doubtless catch flak for occupying nearly the same real estate as “Sex and the City” and charting some of the same thematic territory. (Sex, the city.) Jake even shares his profession with Kim Cattrall’s Samantha. It bears traces of “Seinfeld” as well, but, despite a bit of real-world name dropping and an eye to the accouterments of upscale urban modern life, it’s not as pop-sociological as either of those shows -- it’s less interested in cultural minutiae and social ritual than in classic sitcom tropes and tensions. (A girl Jake likes shows up at the door while another girl he doesn’t like so much is in his room, etc.) It’s well done enough that when you cringe, you cringe for the characters, not for the actors.

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Though the swinging bachelor was a staple of film and TV in the ring-a-ding ‘60s, nowadays it is a trickier proposition to pull off, women having some time ago liberated themselves from the status of accessories, the fantastic visions of Maxim and Stuff notwithstanding. Jake must be occasionally denied, or make choices obviously counter to his best interests, to not seem merely obnoxious. We can see that he’s accustomed to getting what he wants -- if not always, more often and more easily than most of us -- but if he gets what he wants, he does not always get what he needs. Still, each episode shows him taking a tentative step toward maturity -- “Jake in Progress” is the title, note -- though these steps will not add up to anything much, given that the series needs his character to be suspended permanently at the edge of extended adolescence.

Stamos handles himself with just the right air of harried aplomb. Once chosen by the august People magazine one of the 50 most beautiful humans on Earth, Stamos is holding up quite nicely in young middle age, boyishness permanently embedded in his post-40 features. (The character he plays is somewhat younger and even at that in denial about his age.) At the same time, his looks are out of the ordinary: With his great swooping waves of black hair, thick, animated eyebrows and large, flaring nostrils, he has something of the aspect of a man with the head of a puppy. I mean this in a good way.

Though he is helplessly vain -- his business partner played by Wendie Malick comments on his “pretty-girl sense of entitlement” -- and so competitive that he compares his cholesterol count with a rival publicist, we know he’s all right deep down because (a) his palms sweat when he’s nervous and (b) he’s loyal to his less fabulous goofball friends.

One is his portly college roommate, a dentist (Ian Gomez from “The Drew Carey Show” and “Felicity”), the other an angry, needy magician-slash-performance artist (Jeff Goldblum sound-alike Rick Hoffman), who once jumped off the stock exchange building using a golden parachute to protest corporate greed. (They form a Jerry-George-Kramer triumvirate, roughly speaking.) Hoffman, especially, livens things up; he is a figure of clueless purity. (“How can you live in New York and not understand sarcasm?” Jake asks him.) And there is the ever-wonderful Malick (“Just Shoot Me”), in what by now we can call the Wendie Malick role -- cynical, dark, stylish, accomplished, a little scary and in this case also hugely pregnant and impatient to get back to being thin. All of them share the quality of being annoying good company.

Though it would be nice to think that the series will stick around awhile -- if only to claim its bit of prime time for something other than murder, social Darwinism or sentimental makeovers -- it strikes me as just the sort of comedy that withers on the network vine. Not cuddly enough on the one hand, not broad enough on the other. ABC is running four episodes this week (two episodes each Sunday and Thursday). Whether this is a matter of coming out with all guns blazing or a plan to get it over with quickly, I wouldn’t know, but if you’re at all interested, I’d advise you to see it now, just in case.

*

‘Jake in Progress’

Where: ABC

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When: 9 p.m. Sunday

Ratings: TV-PG D, L (may be unsuitable for young children, with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language)

John Stamos...Jake

Ian Gomez...Adrian

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Rick Hoffman...Patrick

Wendie Malick...Naomi

Executive producers, Austin Winsberg, Tim Doyle, Peter Traugott. Director, Michael Spiller. Writer, Austin Winsberg.


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