It is dumbfounding that ABC can't come up with a suitable comedy vehicle for Harvey Korman. Tonight the network tries again and fails again, this time with "Snavely," a sit-com about a scoundrel who runs a small, broken-down hotel. The program, at 8:30 on Channel 7, is based on, and played better as, the British series "Fawlty Towers," starring John Cleese.
Korman is a huge comic personality with a gift for sudden, off-the-wall subtleties, but the writers just do not give him enough raw material to play with. They have written Snavely so that he isn't really a monster - just another crotchety dear-heart from sit-com land. Korman is awfully funny storming out of his office to nap "Stop that racket!" at a guest meekly ringing the bell on the front desk, but most of the time he is held at tight rein.
It wasn't a good idea, either, to pair him with Betty White, as Snavely's flirtatious wife, because White is most amusing when allowed to be something of a monster herself. Here she has little identity at all. There are moments of promise in this show, but it is still not worthy of its star.
"Snavely" was directed in strictly mechanical, bloodless, rat-a-tat-tat style by Hal Cooper, who did a lot of "Maudes." Cooper also directed the opening episode of "Free Country," a limited-run series premiering at 8 p.m. on Channel 7.
Rob Reiner stars in, co-authored and helped conceive this misconceived comedy in which an 89-year-old man hosts flashbacks to his life in America over the decades, starting tonight with the early 20th century in New York, where the character awaits the arrival of his wife, from Lithuania, on Ellis Island.
The structure is borrowed from "Little Big Man." Reiner, in Stan Winston's elaborate makeup, talks to an unseen interviewer before we dissolve, rather handsomely on tape, into bygones. The project seems ambitious on the surface but that old TV bogeyman of trivialization creeps in quickly; Reiner has used the rich setting of our melting-pot past for pratfalls, gags and the shout comedy he learned while at Norman Lear's fun factory.
An overbearing laugh track - it sounds part real and part simulated - adds to the general aura of coarseness; watching "Free Country" is a little like attending a screening of Joan Micklin Silver's similarly themed "Hester Street" with a pack of cackling jackals in the balcony. The token social commentary occurs when Reiner begins bellowing to arriving immigrants, "This country is not perfect! This country is not perfect!"
He should have said "Free Country' is not perfect," and not by a long shot.