Who are Joe Bash and Mr. Sunshine? They're a coupla cranky guys around whom uncertain sitcoms have been built. Both premiere on ABC tonight: the long-delayed "Mr. Sunshine" at 9 and "Joe Bash" at 9:30 on Channel 7. Both shows try hard to be different. Both might try a little harder to be good.
The nominal hero of "Mr. Sunshine" is Paul Stark, a college English professor who went blind a few years ago and whose wife has left him. ABC describes Stark as "acerbic," but viewers may find him just nasty. As played by the great bald tower Jeffrey Tambor, the fellow is hard to get to know, hard to get to like, but not without a certain gruff dignity. Tambor gives the part both physical and spiritual stature.
But as so often happens on sitcoms, the central character is intriguing, but the circumstances into which writers have put him are flat and not terribly promising. In tonight's premiere, Stark moves into an apartment owned by a Ms. Swinford, played in a gratingly twittery style by Barbara Babcock, who seems to be doing the worst imitation of Billie Burke she can muster. The professor mistreats his devoted teen-age son, played by John P. Navin Jr., and follows orders dished out by his crisply bossy personal secretary, played by Nan Martin.
Many of the jokes in the David Lloyd script have to do with blindness. The secretary tells the professor at his office, "I finished your article; you wanna proof-feel it?" She warns him that without female companionship he'll have "nothing to come home to but a bottle of cheap wine and a copy of 'Fanny Hill' in braille." When he agrees, after considerable urging, to visit a singles bar, Prof. Stark says, "At least I'm going into this with my eyes open" and, once there, and asked if he is "really" blind, replies, "Bats use me as a role model."
The irreverence seems studied and a trifle self-congratulatory in that aspiringly hip Hollywood way. Naturally, after about 21 minutes of the caustic stuff, Mr. Sunshine learns a valuable lesson about himself during the token minute of meaningful reckoning. He is "so afraid of pity" that he "can't accept caring," he is told.
Ah, yes, what a valuable lesson that is. Why do we get the feeling that Mr. Sunshine will be learning it again next week? One may feel toward "Mr. Sunshine," fitfully ambitious though it is, the way Mr. Sunshine himself regards an assistant -- which is with a haughty, but decisive, "Out of my sight!"
ABC's other unlikely hero, "Joe Bash," is a veteran of 31 years on the New York City police force. He is 51, unmarried, four years away from retirement and every bit as cranky as Mr. Sunshine. In the title role, Peter Boyle is hearty if not hale, but the show is so determinedly an oddball that you do have to wonder where its appeal is supposed to lie.
Tonight's premiere -- created, cowritten and even directed by Danny Arnold, of "Barney Miller" fame -- introduces Joe to the audience and to his new, young partner, 31-year-old rookie Willie Smith. In this role, Andrew Rubin has to do a lot of shouting, while Boyle stalks around in deep rumple. It seems Bash is a salty, world-weary maverick whereas Smith is more of an ingenuous regimental type. "We got a gap goin'," he tells Joe. "We're the wrong shape." That does seem to be a major problem.
To a prostitute who visits Joe for the usual reasons prostitutes visit people, Joe declares his credo: "Illusions is what's important." Maybe so, but the quality of illusion on this show is on the threadbare side, and the New York street stereotypes really would be more at home on a scrapheap. Joe is a whiner and a grouch, but the script seems to see these as lovable qualities, Joe's entitlement after years of dodging falling refrigerators, figuratively and, as tonight, literally. The program seems a monument to middle-age self-pity.
Boyle has a long and plainly extraordinary monologue to a group of multiethnic tenement dwellers whom he addresses while descending their rickety staircase. It's an impressive miniature tour de force, but Arnold the director keeps undercutting Arnold the writer. His scenes are so reliant on tight shots of Joe and his partner that you get the feeling all those stories about budget cuts in Hollywood really are true. The tight shots could be there to hide the fact that the producers didn't want to spend a lot of money on sets. "Joe Bash" may be among the first of a new generation of Gramm-Rudman sitcoms.
With the TV sitcom glut reaching choke-hold proportions, and with ABC's prime-time ratings still humiliatingly low, the network may inherit the old NBC mantle of being most willing to gamble on something unorthodox. For "Mr. Sunshine" and "Joe Bash," however, unorthodoxy is about the most that can be claimed. "Mr. Sunshine" does have a few laughs; "Joe Bash" merely has a few low moans.