'The Captain': Livable if Not Quite Lovable

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 4, 2008

Kooky and cute as a cockapoo puppy, the new CBS sitcom "Welcome to the Captain" faces sobering challenges. It has to maintain ratings parity with the rest of the CBS Monday night comedy lineup, and it has to revalidate the sitcom genre itself amid the rezoning of prime time into Reality City.

Regardless, "Welcome to the Captain" has many easily appreciated charms -- Raquel Welch, to name two.

Welch, looking as brilliantly iconic and larger-than-life as the billboard she posed for in the movie disaster "Myra Breckinridge," has an ironically small part in the comedy -- premiering tonight at 8:30 -- but talk about taking over the show. She spills out of the screen and into one's living room in the role of Charlene Van Ark, one of several colorful characters who dwell in El Capitan, one of those loco rococo apartment buildings still standing in Los Angeles.

Managed by an eccentric misfit named Uncle Saul (Jeffrey Tambor, a scene-stealer of a different sort), the building, nicknamed the Captain, contains a human menagerie somewhat like the rooming house managed by Mrs. Madrigal in Armistead Maupin's "Tales of the City" on PBS. Madrigal's place housed examples from every shade of the sexual rainbow, especially the gay ones, whereas the Captain appears to be a more assertively heterosexual hangout.

Writer-director John Hamburg's semi-serialized story is set in motion when a discouraged screenwriter, of whom Hollywood houses hundreds, vows to forsake the West Coast and head back east. But Josh Flug (played by Fran Kranz) has a close friend named Marty Tanner (Chris Klein) who talks Flug into trying out the former apartment of a dead actor at the Captain, where the waiting list is normally "a mile long."

Flug's appearance changes from the pilot to the second episode, airing next week, suggesting hair revisionism, but the tone of the show remains unchanged and unlike anything else currently on the air, which is not necessarily a recommendation. Produced without a laugh track, the ensemble comedy features an assembly that isn't very close-knit, the way a family, a group of employees or even the denizens of the same bar tend to be.

At the same time, the laugh lines are more sophisticated than the usual rat-a-tat gags fired off in most sitcoms, and character development is more of a priority. Young Flug finds himself quickly smitten with a young acupuncturist appropriately named Hope (a gladdening Joanna Garcia), first enlisted to treat Flug's sciatica. A certain problem arises during the session, one that indicates Flug sees Hope as more than a pain reliever -- but that, too.

Unfortunately, the trajectories of the other characters tend to be less than fascinating. Welch's Van Ark turns out to be an aging vamp (claiming to be 42) who seduces each new male resident as part of his welcoming festivities.

Klein is a genuine nuisance as the supposedly fast-living Tanner, a man with a battering-ram grin. He was acclaimed a natural when discovered as a high school student but apparently took acting lessons after his movie career bottomed out on clunkers like "Rollerball." Actually, those must have been overacting lessons, since he magnifies every word and gesture intolerably.

Tambor is one of the first-class second bananas of film and television, having especially distinguished himself opposite Garry Shandling on "The Larry Sanders Show," then romping up a storm on "Arrested Development." But the part he plays here, a onetime "Three's Company" writer who wants to be addressed as "Uncle Saul," seems forced in its eccentricity. Uncle Saul does exercises on the carpet in the lobby, runs around dressed for a safari and has a "weekend getaway" that turns out to be in the same building, but on the top floor.

Flug joins him there in next week's episode, after panicking at the sight of Hope flossing in his bathroom; he fears she's moving in one ablution at a time. The characters are refreshingly non-hostile and converse in something other than brittle, cold sitcom-speak. But the serialized nature of the stories (subsequent episodes begin with the "previously on" feature usually seen on dramas) is no particular plus. And while the characters are sweet, they stop short of being lovable.

Still, there are no screaming contestants humiliating themselves or yuppies playing native on a tropical isle or manic loonies trying to remember song lyrics. "Welcome to the Captain" has, instead, decided pluses. Indeed, it's worth tuning in just to hear La Grande Welch declare, "I read about it on the World Wide Web" with a breeze in every lyrical syllable.

Welcome to the Captain (30 minutes) premieres at 8:30 p.m. on CBS (Channel 9).

© 2008 The Washington Post Company