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'Accidentally': No Big Oops; No Big Whoop

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 21, 2009

Puffing pleasantly along like an efficient toy train, "Accidentally on Purpose" makes predictable stops and toots its horn gamely and so what if it chugs around in circles? The show, premiering Monday at 8:30 p.m., is so golly-gosh cute that it would probably look comfy sitting under the tree on Christmas morning. Fans of other comedies in the CBS Monday night lineup will probably enjoy this one -- or at least sit still for it.

There's a bit of timeliness in the premise: a cougar on the prowl. Jenna Elfman plays Billie, a 37-year-old San Francisco film critic who has been dating her editor (talk about bad taste!) for three uneventful years. He's a stiff who refuses to propose marriage even though they are both getting older, especially her. When an affable younger man (Jon Foster) makes a friendly pass in her hangout bar, she assumes it will be a standard one-night stand.

But after another date or two, little Billie-kins discovers she's pregnant, a revelation that is treated not with melodrama but with humor.

Billie wants the baby because she thinks this may be her last chance, and plans to proceed whether the man from the bar shows interest and faces his responsibility or not. Guess what: He does, and moves in with her.

The antics that ensue are moderately amusing; Elfman and Foster put them over with considerable charm. Elfman has toned down, at least a little bit, the cootchy-coo persona she had on "Dharma & Greg," the hit that introduced her in a previous century.

It's not easy to buy the notion that she's a film critic, however; the only cinematic reference she makes in the premiere is to Meg Ryan movies. She does have a "Gilda" poster in her apartment, however, so that's a clue, almost. The editor who has been dating her says she's not just a film critic but "the best one at my newspaper." So the newspaper is a booming business, and it has several film critics on its staff. Where is this idyllic, untouched-by-reality publication -- on the moon?

Billie has a pair of gal-pals who feed her straight lines and wisecracks, some on the funny side, and the banter with her alleged boy-toy seems semi-fresh if not witty (we mustn't ask for miracles). One wee sign of the times: The title tune is only one-lyric long: "I Can't Be Anything Without You." That's no "Ballad of Gilligan's Island," which cleverly (yes, cleverly!) told the setup for the whole series.

Such is the shaky state of sitcoms today that each new one is measured for a coffin before it even gets on the air, and the fate of the format seems to be riding on every foolhardy attempt to launch a new one. "Accidentally on Purpose" doesn't have the smarts to be the salvation of a genre, but neither does it look like the torpedo to sink the ship. Not great, but nothing heinous. Hardly "The Cosby Show" or "Cheers," but then neither is it "My Mother the Car" or -- oh, for heaven's sake, enough already! You probably get the picture.

The show is another entry in TV's bulging annals of friendly mediocrity. It registers on the senses, it painlessly kills some time, and it fills the gap between the shows that precede and follow it. It's a bridge, a conduit, a bland bit of linkage.

It's certainly preferable to having a big blank gap there. And that's not nothing. Many's the show of which even that cannot be said.

Accidentally on Purpose (30 minutes) premieres Monday at 8:30 on CBS.

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