Television's resident population of Funny Blacks grows by two tonight with the addition of "The New Odd Couple," the last prime-time series of the new network season to make its premiere. This perfunctory ABC revision of the old "Odd Couple," with a black Oscar Madison and a black Felix Unger, bows at 8:30 on Channel 7.
Shows with comic black leads -- "Diff'rent Strokes," "Gimme a Break," "Benson" -- can succeed on television, but programs with blacks in serious lead roles -- "Paris," "The Lazarus Syndrome" -- seem almost certain to fail. It probably just goes to prove that in addition to being terminally stupid, lazy and dull-headed, the 1,200 families hooked up to the Nielsen ratings meters treasure their stereotypes and prejudices, too.
How do Nielsen families sleep with the knowledge that they are a primary force in the pollution of American culture and the desecration of a communications medium with incalculable potential for good? Ah, well, a question for another time.
Other than the recasting, and a funkier rendition of the title tune, little about "The Odd Couple" has changed. It's still a one-joke show -- a divorced sloppy man living with a divorced tidy man, har har -- and, since it is produced by the reprehensible Garry K. Marshall, a truly lucky idiot, it's all very loud and broad and obvious.
Demond Wilson is much, much more appealing in the role of Oscar than the obnoxious Jack Klugman ever was. Wilson's gotten likably fat since "Sanford and Son"; he looks like a big sleepy bear. But Ron Glass, a good actor, is wrong for the part of Felix; his idea of fussbudgetry comes awfully close to many people's idea of sissiness. Cruelly wasted on the premiere -- a farce about troubles with dat old debbil income tax -- are guest star Esther Rolle, as an IRS auditor, and series regular John Schuck, as Murray the cop.
Although the show depicts the alleged home life of two black men, neither character makes a single racial reference, serious or comic, in the course of the premiere. Is this Hollywood pretending to be color-blind or just evidence that no one really bothered to tailor the old material to the new stars? The show is so cheaply produced it looks as though they dug up Laverne and Shirley's old Milwaukee apartment set out of the Paramount closets and dusted it off for reuse.