It's powerful hard not to develop an instant hankerin' for "Best of the West," the amiably nutty new ABC comedy that somewhat prematurely kicks off the fall television season tonight at 8 on Channel 7.
By no means a scream, and lacking the warm core that can make a sitcom deeply endearing, "Best" does assemble a winning gallery of comic actors and puts them through paces far more amusing than is usual on the lone prairie, a.k.a. vast wasteland, of network TV. The program was created by some of those responsible for the more substantial "Taxi"; it may lack that show's heart, but it shares its mood of gleeful camaraderie and nattily tailored irreverence.
The "Best" of the West of the title is Sam Best, played by easy-pleaser Joel Higgins, a kind of Ken Berry with moxie. Sam has uprooted his second wife and his young son from the comforts, such as they have ever been, of Philadelphia and dragged them to frontiersy Copper Creek circa 1865 for a more adventurous existence.
In the brisk and spiffy pilot airing tonight, the hero stumbles into the job of town marshal, which will pit him against the town's ready-made and genuinely amusing foil, Parker Tillman, a two-bit robber baron played with crafty, world-weary charm by Leonard Frey. A child with the semi-musical name of Merlo Peluce plays Best's disgruntled, complaining young son (he'll stay in Copper Creek but "I'm never going outside," he announces), and Carlene Watkins brings blithely dithery tintinnabulations to the role of Best's southern belle wife, Elvira.
Recalling the day they met during the Civil War, Elvira tells her husband, "You looked so handsome in your blue uniform as you marched in and burned my daddy's plantation to the ground." Then it's back to the churn for a hard day's whey.
In the premiere, Brad Sullivan plays Rance, one of Tillman's hapless henchmen, but he was subsequently replaced and future shows feature Tracey Walter as Frog, another hapless henchman. Vast Pat Ast, who plays one of the town's poor excuses for a floozy, also drops out of sight after tonight's premiere.
But remaining permanently in the cast are a delightfully grizzled and frazzled Tom Ewell as the town's drunken doctor, and Valri Bromfield in a whacky-tacky takeoff on Calamity Jane. Christopher Lloyd, a daft "Taxi" regular, appears tonight and in some future episodes as the Calico Kid, an inept gunslinger who takes pride in his reputation for shooting unarmed men.
The time hardly seems propitious for a spoof of westerns, what with Boot Hill having gone condo and westerns in general having disappeared somewhere in darkest Thataway. But "Best of the West" is set only nominally in the 1860s, and the program really doesn't do much actual satire of western conventions (when it does, it gets a little thuddish). Instead, it has in common with "Taxi" the premise of characters stranded by circumstances in a hostile, or at least indifferent, environment, and struggling with the roles fate has assigned them.
Almost all television is really set in the present, anyway; "Best of the West" is no exception, and the cheap sets on Paramount sound stages are nothing if not baldly contemporary. A potential problem for the show is that the setting will wear thin quickly, and the novelty of plopping 1980s characters into 1860s pop-myth may not be very imperishable either. For now, though, the characters are strong and the scripts crackling. You'd have to be a fairly ornery polecat not to find a heap o' goshamighty in "Best of the West."