In less barren television times -- and it's hard to recall any that were -- "Newhart" would be just another pleasant situation comedy. But the networks don't seem to be much in the market for pleasantries any more, so "Newhart," which premieres tonight at 9:30 on Channel 9, shines like pure gold in the seedy pawnshop of prime time.
It's been precisely 10 years since Newhart's previous CBS comedy series premiered. The comedian's baggy-eyed and underplayed Chicago style has not changed, but instead of portraying a Windy City psychiatrist, Newhart is now a "how-to" book author ("Building Your Own Patio Cover," et al) who, with his wife, has moved to Vermont to own and operate historic Stratford Inn, which dates back to 1774.
The comedy could be said to date back as well, though hardly as far. Newhart spends a sizable part of his comic time on the telephone, the instrument he used so inventively in his early monologues. The Vermont setting may be totally irrelevant, even annoyingly so, but writer and executive producer Barry Kemp has constructed an efficient, breezy vehicle in which Newhart can thrive, and director John Rich applies his accomplished hand to get the maximum from every situation.
Where the show disappoints is in the collection of foils chosen to surround the star. Mary Frann is capable and smart as Newhart's wife, but she pales in comparison to his former costar, the beautiful and sassy Suzanne Pleshette. An allegedly funny next-door-neighbor, played by Steven Kampmann, rattles on like a nervous Hollywood comic ("I'm a habitual liar. Actually, that's not true"); this is a character that grows on you -- like herpes. Jennifer Holmes is less irritating as Leslie Vanderkellen, a too-rich girl who comes to work at the inn because "I want to find out what it's like to be average," to which Newhart replies, giving the line a subtle spin unique to him, "It's -- it's fun."
The title of most valuable supporting player goes to Tom Poston, who filled a similar function on the late "Mork and Mindy." Poston is given very little to say that's funny -- most of his business on the first show involves a sticky door and a broken window -- but his addled Stan Laurel presence is a delightful asset.
Kemp builds deftly to a surefire second act. Local ladies of a D.A.R.-type group are thrilled that the inn has been reopened and call upon the new owners to lecture them regarding its history. Newhart discovers upon some perfunctory research that the inn, and the ladies' ancestors who ran it, gave aid and comfort well beyond the call of duty to men fighting the British in the Revolutionary War. It was, according to letters from the fighting men, the best little inn in New England.
The scene in which Newhart must reluctantly reveal this historical fact to the ladies is polished to a point of brilliance by all concerned. "Newhart" adds both civility and hilarity to a prime-time community woefully lacking in both.