The NBC peacock has a face full of egg again, just the thing to sober it out of its current ratings euphoria and back to reality. "Sara," a new sitcom premiering tonight at 9:30 on Channel 4, may be many things, one of them mediocre, but it is not, not, not the "Mary Tyler Moore Show" of the '80s.
And yet that's what advance word from within the network alleged it to be.
NBC spokesmen are busy now denying that anybody at the network ever meant that suggestion seriously. Obviously they have realized the show could never live up to such unjustifiable hypicide. "Sara" is about a young, attractive, single professional woman (in this case, a lawyer) making her way in the world, but there the similarity ends. "MTM" was crowded with funny, warm, fallible, ingratiating characters. "Sara" has plenty of fallibilities but no more warmth than the light bulb in a closed refrigerator.
From the pilot -- which was announced as the premiere, then replaced with another episode, and now has been reinstated as the premiere -- one might surmise that "Sara" will be still another show about getting into the proverbial sack: will she or won't she, and with whom? If a character in this kind of program doesn't make a sex reference often, you think, "Oh dear, the poor eunuch." This is the sitcom version of "Looking for Mr. Goodbar." It's "Looking for Mr. Zagnut."
Mary Tyler Moore had her sexual escapades (actually, they were romantic escapades; we still had a semblance of romance in the '70s). But the essence was her life with the extended family she worked with. "Sara" flip-flops that formula. The extended family gets short shrift, and it's an unappealing crowd besides.
"Sara" got to television because of NBC Entertainment president Brandon Tartikoff's infatuation with the work of its executive producer Gary David Goldberg, who also does "Family Ties." That show was a very marginal "hit" until this season, when it was slotted after the wonderful "Cosby Show" (which not only started wonderful but has stayed wonderful; last week's episode was one of its best ever). With the protection of this smash as a lead-in, "Family Ties" now coasts gratefully into the hit column. Goldberg seems not so much a terribly talented man as a terribly lucky one. With "Sara," he has more work cut out for him. The show airs opposite the hothouse powerhouse "Dynasty" on ABC.
Goldberg may himself be more entertaining, and make more sense, than are and do his shows. At a recent press event in Los Angeles, Goldberg attacked the ABC television network, currently experiencing a ratings crisis. "I think they're getting what they deserve," Goldberg told reporters, because "over the years, ABC has abused people, and they have been emotionally negligent and arrogant." His vow that "I wouldn't work for ABC under any circumstances" may not be a crushing blow, however, to ABC executives who watch 10 minutes of "Sara."
The program does have a distinction or two. One of the young lawyers in the legal clinic where Sara works is openly homosexual. In the pilot, a heterosexual man accuses him of not liking women. "I like women a lot more than you do," the gay man says. "I treat them with respect and affection." The straight man snarls back, "I don't want to hear about your hangups." Cute, and maybe even funny. But all the characters seem identified primarily by their sexual proclivities. They're all on the prowl, more or less, like those predatory beasts in the perfume and cologne commercials. It's a rather narrow view of human existence.
At times the show is aggressively unsavory. When the office heel (Bill Maher, the standup comic) opens the door to Sara's apartment, he sees her standing next to a 4-year-old boy she's been baby-sitting, and says to her leeringly, "Kinky, Sara, but I like what it's telling me about you." I don't like what that line is telling us about the people who created "Sara."
Sara herself is played by Geena Davis, a survivor of the execrable bomb "Buffalo Bill." Davis is pretty and pretty uninteresting once you get beyond that. She doesn't look like life really happens to her. Alfre Woodard, whose ample talents are squandered in the role, plays her all-wise black friend (the Token Black Friend usually is all-wise in these kinds of programs), and Bronson Pinchot, such a scream in the tiny role of Serge in the movie "Beverly Hills Cop," hasn't enough to do in the role of the gay lawyer. And minus his Serge accent, he's considerably less a scream than a shrug.
Current transitory industry wisdom maintains that sitcoms are back after a long spell in which they were out of favor. "Kate & Allie" on CBS and then "Cosby" on NBC do seem to have revived the format, but both shows are well cast and cleverly written and have a flavorful comedic point of view. All these things are lacking in tonight's entry from NBC. Rumors of a renaissance seem flagrantly premature.
Maybe the show deserves further examination before being written off, and maybe it wouldn't seem so bad if it hadn't been for the advance puff. But on the basis of the pilot, Woodard is speaking for more than herself when she says, "You've been a major disappointment to me, Sara."