A Bachelor's Tale of Whoa

Ivana Milicevic and Tom Cavanagh test the relationship waters in
Ivana Milicevic and Tom Cavanagh test the relationship waters in "Love Monkey." (By Barbara Nitke -- Cbs)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 17, 2006

"Love Monkey" is easy to dismiss yet hard to dislike. The new CBS comedy, at 10 tonight on Channel 9, is as weightless as an astronaut bobbing around in zero gravity, but when it comes to prime-time diversions, it's better to lack importance than charm. "Love Monkey" has charm by the oodle, and some very beguiling tricks up its sleeve.

Tom Cavanagh, who for several years played "Ed" on NBC, hasn't exactly stepped boldly into new territory with this show. As bashful bachelor Tom Farrell, he's obviously Ed-like; "Edwardian," one might say but probably shouldn't. One difference is that Farrell lives not in a cozy if kooky small town but in New York, the mad megalopolis whose praises he sings in an unfortunate opening narration:

"New York! Gotham! The Concrete Jungle! The City That Never Sleeps! The Big Apple!" Shut up! Yes, he's making fun of the cliches, but it's a cliche to make fun of cliches as cliched as those. The voice-over continues annoyingly for most of the show's first five minutes, another strike against "Love Monkey" because insistent and incessant narrations are among the most overused gimmicks in modern-day TV comedy.

Once all that prefatory prattle is out of the way, and we are treated to actual scenes with actual dialogue in them, the show begins to hum merrily. It even sings, literally -- because it's set in the music business, where Tom labors as a record company's A&R (artists and repertory) man.

Although something of a success in his professional life, Tom's personal life is strewn with wreckage, mainly the remains of past relationships that went awry or askew. What Tom needs is a major change in his life that will force him to make other changes, and he gets it. He's fired.

The predicament is reminiscent of the movie "Jerry Maguire," but instead of writing a gung-ho interoffice memo that leads to his dismissal, Tom makes a gung-ho, idealistic speech at a staff meeting. Foomp, he's outta there. To make his week complete, Tom's girlfriend of five months dumps him, appalled that the mere mention of the word "marriage" appears to scare Tom more than all the movies in the "Night of the Living Dead" trilogy put together.

Cavanagh's essential likability makes us care about Tom's fate, which is lucky for the show because Cavanagh seems to do little actual acting in the role. Television may be a minimalist medium where theatrical histrionics are concerned, but it would be nice if Cavanagh had a little more life to him, a few more hints of human emotion. He's too cool, too unflappable. He needs to heat up and be flapped.

At least he could enunciate and speak up, instead of mumbling and muttering many of his lines. He practically has Jerry Mahoney lips. (Note to the young: Jerry Mahoney was ventriloquist Paul Winchell's principal dummy.) (Note to the old: By "the young," I mean anybody under, oh, 65.)

The Novocained nature of Cavanagh's performance is particularly odd considering that the character he plays is considered a maverick, someone who truly cares about music; he's passionate where others are just in it for the dough. In his personal relationships, though, Tom's problem is partly passivity, so maybe Cavanagh's approach to the role is more appropriate than it seems at first encounter.

Tom pals around with a group of supporting players who are as innately ingratiating as Cavanagh is: Larenz Tate, Judy Greer and, as the one member of the group who's married -- and to Tom's sister -- Jason Priestley. The sister is played with welcome warmth by Katherine LaNasa. Another friend, a sportswriter played cagily by Christopher Wiehl, has a secret not revealed until the final moments of the premiere; it's part of a beautiful montage set to the song "Love Is a Marathon" as sung by guest star Teddy Geiger. (Another note to the young: Who the hell is Teddy Geiger? Actually -- never mind.)

In the waning moments of the premiere, Tom performs a truly selfless act and is rewarded by the arrival of a new girlfriend, the very appealing Ivana Milicevic as Julia Hixon. The relationship shows promise.

Whence the title? At one point, Tom is lectured about his inability to maintain a serious and lasting relationship: "You keep looking for the perfect branch," he's told, but his unwillingness to compromise may mean he is "going to end up one lonely monkey." There are millions of lonely monkeys out there in the world, real and otherwise, but the smart and sensitive talents behind "Love Monkey" make us hope that Tom Farrell won't be one of them.

Love Monkey (one hour) airs Tuesday nights at 10 on Channel 9.

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