CBS seems to have come up with a show about the people who watch NBC -- or at least about the people who used to watch "Hill Street Blues" for the wrong reasons and now watch "Miami Vice" for the wrong reasons instead.
On the surface, which is all there is to it, really, "Hometown," premiering at 10 tonight on Channel 9, is simply an obedient clone of the hit movie "The Big Chill," which itself was a clone of the smaller-budgeted film "Return of the Secaucus Seven." But since it aspires only to a lap-doggish strain of winsome innocuousness, "Hometown" might also be mistaken for an hour-long Lowenbrau commercial, albeit one in which the beer never quite shows up.
Where the Big Chillers convened for a funeral, the Hometowners reconnoiter for a wedding. Seven friends are they, classmates in college during those passionate '60s, reunited tonight when two of their own decide, after 15 years of a cohabitation that produced two children, to get married. Chic post card invitations are sent out in a cast-introducing montage set to the golden oldie "Chapel of Love." Yes, there will be lots of golden oldies.
The happy couple appear to have sold out but big. They live in a mammoth and invitingly comfy white house and say, those look like Laura Ashley sheets there in the bedroom, where he pops the belated question. "I want God to know we're involved," he explains. At that point a viewer can either take the cue and lunge for the remote control, or sit there for the full hour and take one's cherry-flavored medicine.
It would be folly to chide the show for its utter absence of dramatic impact since that isn't what it aspires to. It only aspires to plucking sympathetic nerves in like-minded viewers, the way those wonderful Lincoln-Mercury yuppie commercials do. At this mission, the program is successful, and that may make it good television -- an hour of familiar mediocrity whose worthlessness is mitigated by its harmlessness. As craftsmanship, it's fairly impeccable, and no cars go through any plate-glass windows.
The cast is attractive and not without charm. Mary and Ben, the middle-aged newlyweds, are played with genial warmth by Jane Kaczmarek and Franc Luz. Their comic-relief cookie-cutter friends include John Bedford-Lloyd as a womanizing funster who can't seem to forge one of them there Meaningful Relationships (an element of suspense: Will anyone have the guts to tell this guy he is simply a tiresome jerk?) and Margaret Whitton as dizzy and daffy Barbara Donnelly, a flibbertigibbit whose husband is about to leave her -- no mystery why. Christine Estabrook is Ms. NewWoman, a presidential adviser and poli-sci professor, and likable Daniel Stern plays Joey, who says his job as a cook is "a natural extension of my inability to function in the mainstream."
The most patient psychoanalyst in the world would have trouble maintaining interest in the trifling concerns of these frumpy yumpies; Ann Landers would fall asleep reading their letters. Near the midway point in tonight's premiere, writers (and executive producers) Julie and Dinah Kirgo decide maybe they do need some dramatic friction after all, so they have hubbie-to-be Ben spot his wife being kissed by a former beau, dilapidated rock star Christopher Springer (Andrew Rubin).
However, it never occurs to Ben to punch Chris in the nose, nor even to confront either party to this momentary indiscretion. We're told the smooch threatens the wedding but then the whole matter is just dropped, like a fruit fly hitting one of those back yard insect zappers. Just as well, because we wouldn't have wanted this group encounter session to turn into anything resembling an actual story, now would we?
CBS is taking the unusual step of premiering the new fall series well before the season begins (it moves to Tuesday nights once it does). Obviously an attempt is being made to hook viewers on the fates and fortunes of these characters, but that seems an eminently resistible lure. How they make the transition from their yesterworld of antiwar demonstrations and bell-bottom trousers to an '80s of golf and investment seminars is about as compelling a matter as whether they will choose leather or vinyl upholstery for their BMWs.
Strolling down Main Street and noticing such landmarks as a tree one of them chained himself to during a demonstration, Ben the bookstore owner is reminded of a novel he once started writing. "It was one of those angry, anti-Establishment things, and somewhere along the line, I made a lucky investment and kind of got sucked up into the mainstream," he says, to which Mary responds, "Oh yeah? We all did." Perhaps "Hometown" is really another drama about Hollywood writers and the guilt they feel for all the money they make compiling TV scripts that merely rearrange cliche's in formats that must be so derivative even a network executive can recognize them.