The first thing Ed Weinberger, co-creator and a producer of "Mr. Smith," NBC's comedy about a talking orangutan with a 256 IQ, should do on Monday morning is fire the director of tonight's premiere episode: Ed Weinberger. What sounded like enlightened merriment from advance word, and what read like a high comic lark in David Lloyd's script, comes off stiff, dim and flat on film.
The special one-hour premiere, at 8 tonight on Channel 4, introduces the character and the circumstances that gave him the gift of speech and a brain so potent that the U.S. government enlists it in research and planning. Of course, a brain that potent would probably wander off into the private sector so dear to Ronald Reagan's heart. But anyway--we see how a normal orangutan named ChaCha ends up in a lab, plays about with a computer and drinks an enzyme solution that gives him powers beyond those of the mortal ape.
Weinberger and Stan Daniels, who came up with the program, hoped to use Mr. Smith to comment on, of all things, the human condition, and to slip in sly political and social satire for adults even while children chuckled at the funny-funny monkey. But the topical jesting is kept awfully parenthetical. Raymond, the personal secretary hired to keep Mr. Smith happy and under control (Leonard Frey, an invaluable asset), gets him to wear shoes by saying, "Bare feet with formal attire isn't done in Washington. Not even during the Carter administration."
Mr. Smith later does an imitation of Ronald Reagan, and also holds forth on the virtues of watching "mindless drivel" on television. This show doesn't fall into that category; it just goes under the heading of botched jobs. Weinberger's slack, static direction keeps everyone too far from the camera much of the time. Because of the technical problems in creating the talking ape illusion, the show is filmed with one camera, like "The Fall Guy" or "Falcon Crest," shot by shot, so that interplay among the characters is almost nonexistent. There's no flow, no ensemble spontaneity.
The performance of the ape, or the ape and whatever device supplements it (Herve Villechaise in hairy jammies, perchance?) is all right, but much of the time, Mr. Smith talks with his back to the camera or in long shot. It helps contribute to the muted, distanced nature of the program. The pacing is sluggish, too. "Mr. Smith" sounded like a happy throwback to broad fantasy-comedy that would be dignified with witty touches and nuances. The program, unfortunately, seems only to half-exist, if that. It's one long nuance, and it should have been one great hoot.