Beatrice Arthur doesn't just cast withering glances; she levels demolishing glowers. Arthur, who can do more with a scowl and a put-down than the Big Bad Wolf managed with huffing and puffing, is the star and the raison d'etre of "Amanda's," one of two new situation comedies premiering tonight on ABC.
Both shows are loud and callous and try too hard, like most ABC sitcoms, and both premiere episodes, though from different production companies, were directed by John Rich, an inarguably skilled pro (and veteran of many an "All in the Family"). But where "Condo," at 8 on Channel 7, is utterly worthless, even a little on the vile side, "Amanda's," at 8:30, has Arthur to see it through. She's a presence along the lines of the Ile de France.
"Amanda's" is the second American attempt to duplicate the British comedy "Fawlty Towers," a black-comedic, John Cleese rampage that became a cult item on public TV stations here. The previous American attempt, with Harvey Korman, didn't work, partly because people don't want to see Harvey Korman being disagreeable; it meant he had to suppress too many agreeable aspects of his nature.
Arthur is better suited to, and more palatable in, the role of the hotel proprietor who is rude to guests, beastly to her unintelligible Italian bellboy (played by Tony Rosato, late of "SCTV" and "Saturday Night Live"), and vaguely forgiving of her son, the hotel manager (Fred McCarren) but not of his air-brained wife Arlene (the funny, and pretty, Simone Griffeth). Arlene spends most of the first episode in a snit because the blouse she ordered from Boston is the wrong shade of green and couldn't she just die.
Elliott Schoenman wrote the pilot, trying for breakneck farce. There are a number of subplots bumping into each other and much running about the upstairs hallway. But the show is at its best when merely setting up straw persons for Arthur to obliterate. An old man checking in, and asking for a quiet room, tells her at the front desk, "I've just been through a very grisly murder trial," to which Amanda responds, "and just my luck, you were acquitted." Turns out he's a judge with a prunish wife. Escorting them to the stairs, Amanda says, "Please, if there's anything that you should want, you can take a flying leap."
Michael Constantine plays Krinsky, a competitor with designs on Amanda's hotel. After an exchange of insults, Amanda tops his with the announcement that she has changed her will. "If I die before you," she tells him, "I'm to be cremated, and my ashes blown in your eyes."
American sitcoms traditionally have not worked when the leading characters are unlikeable--as in the textbook case "Phyllis," with Cloris Leachman. Yet Arthur's Amanda manages to be bullying, dictatorial, intolerant and selfish and still win one's affection, or at least respect. She is going to bark a cruel world into submission or get laryngitis trying, and unlike "Maude," the character played previously by Arthur, Amanda has no apparent political ideologies to expound--just the operating philosophy that domination is better than mere survival. The producers are reportedly going to add additional foils and foes in weeks ahead, but they don't need to send her off into spurious skirmishes. They can just bounce the other characters off her and hope that viewers will enjoy watching the sparks fly.
This one did.
"Condo," meanwhile, is a witless vulgarity that attempts two things not worth attempting. One is to try yet again to find a suitable vehicle for the limited, all-but-indefinable, talents of McLean Stevenson. The other is to imitate, and brazenly, both "All in the Family" and "The Jeffersons" in one crass show.
In the grating premiere, written by Sheldon Bull, the Archie Bunker figure, a super-WASP named James Kirkridge (Stevenson), moves Reaganomically with his small family into a condo, their house having become too expensive for them. Next door, the George Jefferson figure is a Latino man named Jessie Rodriguez (Luis Avalos, of "The Electric Company") who is going the other direction on the social ladder. He's a former gardner who now has his own landscaping firm, just as George Jefferson progressed from one dry cleaning shop to a small empire.
Naturally, the comedy consists of these two insulting each other, very predictably and to no positive effect. Kirkridge mistakes Rodriguez for the condo gardner, Rodriguez snippishly tells Kirkridge they are next-door neighbors, Kirkridge says, "Oh my God," and Rodriguez says, "If you have one, pray to him for intelligence." No, there's no danger of over-slapped knees for viewers of this show.
Archie Bunker's bigotry was only one aspect of his character, and in expressing it each week, some point was made, and Archie's character was further defined, sometimes with great poignance. One could see a dignity beneath Archie's carefully fostered system of misconceptions and prejudices. In part, he was a victim of his own inheritance. Stevenson's Kirkridge has no redeeming qualities, no dimension beyond the gag lines, and no larger point is made by his indulgence in ignorance. Thus, the teleplay tends to legitimize his attitudes by making them merely pegs on which to hang cheap laughs.
A subplot has the WASP's son (Mark Schubb) and the Latino's daughter (Julie Carmen) falling in love and secretly marrying (the pilot covers several months in their lives, one encouraging departure from sitcom formula). They are an attractive couple, an appealingly humane contrast to the stick-figure fathers, but contemplating the ways in which this plot will thicken in the weeks ahead is hardly an inspiring diversion. "Condo" merits immediate foreclosure.