As civilized as a vigilante fantasy could conceivably get, "The Equalizer" is the best of the four new series premiering on CBS tonight. Indeed, of the group there is only one outright abomination: "Charlie & Company," which attempts to pass Flip Wilson off as Bill Cosby. Not in our lifetimes, no.
Edward Woodward, the titular star of "The Equalizer" (at 10 on Channel 9), is hardly your typical action hero. He has girth, gray hair and crow's feet. But he also has stature. The actor, most familiar to American audiences from his role in "Breaker Morant," trundles in on a fresh breeze for crime shows. Since he can't chase people very far on foot without running out of breath, the producers are forced to emphasize character and cunning over the usual dullardly derring-do.
"Got a Problem? Odds Against You?" his rather preposterous classified ad asks. "Call The Equalizer. 212 555 4200." On the premiere, the dialers include a woman being persecuted by a would-be molester, and a company employe who suspects his employers of collusion on a fiendish scheme. The Equalizer makes great show of his independence, but it's worth noting that to thwart the badguys in the last reel, he needs the help of his former employers, a certain unnamed espionage agency he quit in disgust.
When one of his clients tells him that fighting the corporation is "like taking on the U.S. government," the Equalizer responds, "Oh, that will make me feel right at home." Michael Sloan's script fleshes out a portrait of a mercurially brooding loner. "I'm an old war horse let out to pasture," Woodward says, and when a colleague called Brahms (Jerry Stiller) tells him, "I'll cry at your funeral," the hero replies, "I'll be there."
Woodward seems destined to become the season's most seasoned heartthrob. Women will adore him, men admire him. He gives his character an affecting worldly disenchantment, but at the same time brings out all the allure in the wish-fulfillment aspects of the role. He tells a female client, "I'm going to take care of you. Really take care of you. No one is going to hurt you. Believe me and trust me." The fact is, you do.
"The Equalizer," at least to judge from this very attractively atmospheric premiere, could become a welcome guest in many an American home.
At 9:30 on Channel 9, CBS premieres "George Burns Comedy Week," an anthology of comedy stories that starts promisingly. Catherine O'Hara, the comic chanteuse of "SCTV," plays Sally Hayes, a daft sprite whose boredom and vivid imagination, plus a photographic memory, enable and compel her to adopt new identities whenever the mood strikes her.
Her sang-froid has reached such a heightened state that she can even charge into a crime site imagining she is a bomb demolition expert, handily defuse the bomb (planted by the "Kill-for-Peace" movement), and then stroll out of the building and off to a new brief life as a doctor or a policewoman or, to show how truly impressionable she is, as a blue nun when the wine of the same name is mentioned. Tim Matheson, as an eager young cop, is enchanted with her, and it's easy to see why. O'Hara is an enchantment, one of the funniest sexy women ever on television.
Burns appears at the beginning and end of the show in mercifully brief turns as the host. Since there only seem to be two or three commercials on the air on which he doesn't appear, Burns has not exactly made himself a delicacy in television. Carl Gottlieb wrote "The Dynamite Girl," tonight's opener, and Peter Bonerz (of the old Bob Newhart show) directed it. Gottlieb and Steve Martin are executive producers of "Comedy Week."
"Stir Crazy," adapted from a 1980 movie comedy hit and premiering at 8 on Channel 9, is an agreeable comedic hour that makes no intimidating demands. Larry Riley and Joseph Guzaldo inherit the roles played in the film by Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder, and do all right by them as well. Writers Bruce Jay Friedman, Larry Tucker and Larry Rosen have changed somewhat the circumstances by which the two buddies get wrongly convicted of murder and robbery, but their destination is the same -- prison, out of which they frantically endeavor to get.
The brightest light on the premiere is Polly Holliday as the Lt. Javert of the piece, a real inspector hound determined first to send the boys up the river, then to send them back there once they have swum to freedom. Unfortunately, Holliday is not a regular cast member, only a guest star in the premiere. The funniest line on the premiere, however, does go to Riley who says, "Everyone in my cab who is not dead, jump out." Maybe you had to be there. And then again, maybe you will.
"Charlie & Company" comes up empty from Word One. Bill Cosby once partly explained the appeal of "The Cosby Show" on NBC by saying he wanted to do a domestic sitcom in which "the parents win." But they don't win on this feeble CBS imitation. The kids terrorize the parents, who scamper and grovel before them. "When did we lose control of the kids?" Flip Wilson, as Dad, asks Gladys Knight, as Mom. She replies, "Charlie, we never had it."
Pointlessly set on the south side of Chicago, "Charlie & Company," written by executive producer Allan Katz, falls back on the kind of harsh gags Cosby's show so happily lacks. When an office toady tells Charlie "Personally, I think sex is a waste of time," he snaps back, "It's too bad your parents didn't feel the same way." Groan. "Charlie & Company" represents everything about situation comedy that one might have hoped "The Cosby Show" had rendered obsolete.