"Quark" blows in on about the freshest comedy breeze of the TV season tonight -- a veritable "hypothetical particle that carries a fractional electric charge," to quote the dictionary an adult audience. But "Quark" is at the least the merriest genre spoof on television since Don Adams first confided to his shoe on Mel Brooks' "Get Smart."
The opening show, "May the Source Be With You," contains enough agreeably draft material to keep one genuinely amused, and the mockery of s-f conventions is so affectionate that hard-core devotees are more likely to laugh along than take offense. Richard Benjamin as hero Adam Quark, captain of an intergalactic garbage scrow, provides a steadying schlumpy sobriety around which the zaniness revolves in civilized dizziness.
Principal spoofees on the premiere are "Star Trek" (Benjamin makes voice-over "Star Notes" in his log) and "Star Wars," although "Quark" was actually conceived years before "Star Wars" became the wave of the present. Executive producer David Gerber said from Hollywood yesterday that actor-writer Buck Henry came to him with the idea for an s-f comedy five years ago.
"I remember Buck saying to me, 'Whatever we do, let's have a robot who falls in love with a trash can,'" Gerber recalls. A pilot "Quark" aired early last spring on NBC: Henry has since left the show for other projects, but it's obvious he left some of his particular hypothetical particles behind to inspire executive story editor Steve Zacharias in his opening script.
The most beguiling conceit on the premiere is The Source itself -- an unseen spectre with the voice of veteran actor Hans Conried. This is not an infallible force for good but a giant hand of thumbs that is forever sending Benjamin off on ill-advised tangents as he attempts to battle the dread High Gorgon (i.e., Darth Vader). The Source insists on excessive and repetitive displays of unquestioning confidence, forever accusing Benjamin of disbelief and given to such bellowed asides as, "It gives me goose-bumps just to think how wonderful I am."
It's a rare and, in this case, happy day when we get a theological subtext in a situation comedy.
The Source will not be a regular (though He may return in a future show), and the regular characters are less consistently inspired. Tim Thomerson scores some very funny points as an extravagantly contentious Han Solo type, but then it turns out he's a gene freak who flip-flops from macho to sissy at the turn of a wrist; it's a sour, needlessly kinky note. Twins Tricia and Cyb Barnstable as Betty and her Clone aren't put to much use, and Richard Kelton's Spock-like logical vegetable. Ficus, isn't as funny in action as he might have seemed on the script page.
Neither is Andy the Robot, an android who is strictly from scraps on the cutting-room floor of a hardware store. His unremitting cowardice can be amusing, though; in the flimsiest of crises he will beep, "Let's panic. Let's get outta here."
"Quark" offers much to be grateful for, and children should be especially charmed. NBC has scheduled eight shows and there are five more scripts already waiting if "Quark" gets the go-ahead for next season.
"If we stay outrageous, I think we're in business," says producer Gerber. "If we get too silly, then we're out of business." At the moment, "Quark" may not really be silly enough -- or silly in the right ways. Canned TV shows have homogenized much of the anarchy out of comedy, and the TV audience has probably become conditioned to a lack of surprise.
"Quark" could restore some of this precious comedy fluid. Certainly the show seems on the right track when, after Benjamin has questioned yet another bum tip from the voice beyond, he is promptly reprimanded with, "Don't you use that tone with me! I am The Source!" Barry Manilow
That there should even be a "Second Barry Manilow Special" says something about ABC, American network television, American popular music, Barry Manilow and the people who make up titles for TV specials. Exactly what it all does say probably is not worth repeating in a family newspaper.
And yet, thanks to th rigorously tasteful direction of TV veteran George Schaefer, "The Second Barry Manilow Special," at 8 o'clock tonight on Channel 7, is at least a good-looking hour, even if the hero-singer of the title seems gifted only in the resolute ways he can find to flaunt and strut his mediocrity.
The opening number is a guaranteed family pleaser, with Manilow joined for a song called "Daybreak" by a chorus of kids, a chorus of old-timers and a chorus of animated furry and feathered creatures. It's about four minutes of half-magical adroit entertainment, and the show takes off from there on a direct course downhill.
It may be encouraging that someone as sexless, spindly and homely as Manilow can make it big as a pop star, but there'd be more reason for encouragement if he were also a compensatingly brilliant writer or performer. He isn't. He isn't even particularly personable, though you'd never know that from the hordes of screaming girls who besiege him during the last third of the show.
"I read more of the fan mail than you think," he tells this inexplicably adoring throng, and the wonder is not that he reads it, but that he gets it. Once a jingle writer for commercials, later Bette Midler's musical director, Manilow now lives out in public the American Dream of the 1970s: to stretch an iota of talent into spectacular superstardom.
The most one can hope for now, apparently, is that someday somebody like Manilow will, while laughing all the way to the bank, be arrested for overexposure. This is highly unlikely, while a Third Barry Manilow Special is not.