'What About Brian': Fifth Wheel Is Worth Taking for a Test Drive

Barry Watson stars as the odd man out in ABC's new series about a group of thirty-somethings. The show manages to be both familiar and fresh.
Barry Watson stars as the odd man out in ABC's new series about a group of thirty-somethings. The show manages to be both familiar and fresh. (By Gale Adler -- Abc)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 15, 2006

At the second-to-the-last minute last fall, ABC pulled "What About Brian" from its new prime-time lineup and put it on the shelf -- from where, fortunately, the network has finally rescued it.

Despite the passage of time, and a certain resemblance to a series or two from TV history, "Brian" has a slick, sardonic freshness.

The show's eponymous hero, played with tender sheepishness by former "7th Heaven" star Barry Watson, is a noncommittal guy in his thirties, not really a slacker (he and a friend run a video-game company called Zap Monkey) but someone living a life that hasn't quite jelled. (And if it doesn't jell, it isn't aspic -- a line spoken in "Psycho" by Martin Balsam that I've always loved.)

Brian's friends, the flippant way they exchange half-witticisms and a general sense that their problems are half-baked or cooked-up -- all those factors suggest that we are watching an updated version of "thirtysomething." But at least the updating is handled intelligently by series creator Dana Stevens and Executive Producer JJ Abrams, whose credits include ABC's powerhouse "Lost."

Poor Brian is kind of lost, too, as the premiere quickly makes clear (the show airs in a special time slot -- Sunday night at 10 -- and then moves to its regular home at 10 the next night). Brian's friends are his extended family, a group of like-minded professionals who feel comfortable with one another and don't seem terribly involved in the traumatic calamities of the world.

At times, they're too superficial for words -- even too superficial for gestures -- and might as well be the dramatis personae of a beer or SUV commercial -- the kind of ads that inundate sports events on TV: comely comic crowds who hang around the beach or the mountains and just laugh and laugh and laugh at how funny life is.

They have such good times and so enjoy the simple pleasures of getting drunk and wet that you might wish, as you watch, that a giant meteor would fall out of the sky and squish them all like bugs.

The friends on "Brian" are never quite that irritating, but the writers will have to take care to keep them on this side of unbearably adorable.

In the premiere, Brian faces a devilish dilemma. His friends are all paired off, and he resents that his pals wrangle over such matters as who'll give Brian a ride to the movies. So he drives himself. Sad to say, there's a bit of fender-bending on the way, and Brian ends up dating the very driver (Amy Jo Johnson) he rear-ended, who's nicknamed Car Girl by his friends.

Car Girl is a trifle unstable, referring to Brian as "Ted Bundy" and throwing him out of his own apartment. Meanwhile, Brian realizes a painful truth: He is thoroughly in love with his friend Adam's girl, Marjorie (the lovable Sarah Lancaster). As luck would have it, Adam says it's time he and Marjorie broke up and proposes a pact: He will call it quits with Marjorie on the same day Brian ditches Car Girl.

But then, luck has it another way. Adam changes his mind and instead of breaking up with Marjorie -- well, you'll see. He leaves Brian dangling from the horns of a moral dilemma, and you know how uncomfortable that is.

Through it all, most of the actors make their characters zesty and likable, if on occasion too glib for their -- and our -- own good. And Rosanna Arquette makes a welcome return as Brian's great elder sister.

"What About Brian" doesn't seem likely to take the country by storm and might not last past its initial six episodes. But its easygoing charm is brisk, cool and refreshing -- like downing an ice-cold beer on a mountaintop with your SUV parked nearby.

What About Brian (one hour) premieres tomorrow night at 10 on Channel 7.

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