For years wealthy evangelists dripping in costly baubles have tried to convince their flocks that money can't buy happiness. But in extremely large amounts, it can certainly buy a rousingly reasonable facsimile. It just so happens that the way the world has been set up, there are few problems that cannot be solved with massive applications of filthy lucre, and with that fact in mind, ABC prematurely unveils its new fall series "Lottery" tonight with a special 90-minute episode at 8 on Channel 7.
In future weeks, "Lottery" will be seen Fridays at 9 p.m. in one-hour installments.
A far more salutary and agreeable update of "The Millionaire" than was the NBC series "Sweepstakes" of a few years ago, "Lottery" tells three stories per week of people whose lives go into spins when they win multimillion-dollar prizes in a fictitious international lottery game run by a fictitious bank called Intersweep. The premiere is made glibly enjoyable by David Engelbach's enterprising script, Lee Phillips' bulls-eye direction, and most of all by the heretofore untapped charisma of the program's star, Ben Murphy, as Patrick Flaherty, the too-handsome Irish ham ("Cute!" one woman observes) who is charged with doling out the whopper checks to unsuspecting winners.
Murphy, who has appeared in many a TV series, mostly of the flop variety, has a brashly breezy comic approach to this character that is charmingly self-mocking and distinctive. Patrick Flaherty is a man who delights in giving people good news--Murphy makes this delight irresistibly contagious--and also likes to watch "Green Acres" reruns on American television, looking at them with the kind of bemusement with which a man from Mars might look at them.
Even in a TV season that will see the screen populated with a talking orangutan, a jivey black genie and the ghost of a Hollywood starlet, "Lottery" takes the cake when it comes to demanding a suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience. It asks us to accept an IRS agent as a good guy. Flaherty's companion is a tax man played by Marshall Colt who tags along to work things out with the lottery winners. Colt is cheerful and practical and blond, to contrast with Murphy's flippant brunettishness (the series was created by Rick Rosner, who also created "CHiPs"), but bears an unfortunate resemblance to Brad Hall, the talentless priss who does the newscasts on "Saturday Night Live." But he stands back politely and lets Murphy waltz away with the show. It's as novel and agreeable as TV male bonding goes.
In the premiere, the one who giveth and the one who taketh away arrive in San Francisco to present a $3 million check to a couple of poor schmoes who are down to their last dime (Renee Taylor and Allen Goorwitz, both funny and poignant), a $2.5 million check to a woman cop who, it appears from the size of her house, was already living well beyond a cop's means (Ilene Graff plays the part with apt spunk), and a $2 million check to a retarded young man (touchingly but not mawkishly played by Christopher McDonald) whose sister and nasty brother-in-law-to-be try to cheat him out of the bounty.
Apparently some sort of criminal behavior will be included in each week's program to give the show a hard edge, but it's the non-criminal sequences of the premiere that play the best. Goorwitz, thinking Murphy and Colt are bill collectors, flees when he sees them; when he later hears one of them is from the IRS, he is triply terrified. They have to chase him all over the city to make him a rich man. An astute "one-year-later" briefing at the end of the program tells us what the winners did with their money and what it did to them.
If a television program is good, it doesn't lose points for being derivative. TV requires too much programming for anyone to demand that all, or even most of it, be spotlessly original. The debt "Lottery" owes to "The Millionaire" of the '50s is paid off in the teaser sequence before the credits, when we see a faceless "Mr. Big," the John Beresford Tipton of his day, handing Murphy the loot and sending him on his merry way. It is a merry way, and "Lottery" can be chalked up as one new series that very merrily pays off.