"Mary Hartman" meets "The Adams Family" in "Highcliffe Manor," an engagingly, if self-consciously, outrageous Gothic serial comedy premiering tonight, for a six-week run on NBC.
The darkly farcical tune whistled by "Hartman" has been tweeted in prime time before, of course - most noisily by ABC's shrill and bilious "Soap," next to "Barnaby Jones" the most inexplicable hanger-on in all of television. At least "Manor" is produced by the same people who did "Hartman," T.A.T. Communications, and so the show, at 8:30 on Channel 4, has a more authentic kind of clonishness.
Tenants of the manor, which looks like something out of a 1933 Universal horror Film, are eccentric right down to their cuticles, starting in the basement with series co-creator Eugenie Ross-Leming, who plays Frances Kiskadden, a mad scientess busily stitching together a clanky excuse for a bionic man, a one-armed blond named Bram.
"I feel like a used car," Bram complains.
"Oh Bram," scolds Frances. "We in science don't worry about what's right."
Shelley Fabares play the pivotal widow, written a bit too brainless even for a concept this determinedly nutty, and Stephan McHattie is a clumsily dashing rascal named Ian Glenville. For a show in what used to be the Family Hour, the comedy gets pretty kinky. In Episode Two, we learn that Dr. Felix Morger, who tries to pass himself off as a ghost by throwing a gaily patterned sheet over his head, shaves his legs and decorates his room with pictures of his favorite sheep.
In fact, the program gets off to a bad start with too many jokes about death and corpses, but it comes to life with a hilarious lurch upon the arrival of The Villagers, tatty, torch-bearing refugees from a lot of silly old movies about hideous experiments conducted in drafty castles.
In the second show, the spokeswoman for the group arrives at the manor snarling, "All right - no more Mr. Nice Village!"
When The Villagers appear, a beachhead of lunacy is established, and the Ross-Leming and Brad Buckner script, directed by Nick Havinga, perks up and takes off. One line of dialogue stands out, however, not for how funny it is, but for how much it sounds like something someone might be saying to Fred Silverman at any given moment: "I know things are bad for you. I know this your darkest hour. But, believe me - things will get worse."