NBC premieres another new detective show tonight. (Please, please, try to contain your enthusiasm!)
It's from Stephen J. Cannell productions. (You really must resist the temptation to jump in the air and shout "hosanna".)
And the hero is not only a detective, he's a cool, street-smart con man who waggles and bamboozles his way past security guards and doormen. (Oh joy, oh rapture -- another golden age of television is upon us!)
No one could be blamed for being skeptical, parenthetically or otherwise. But in fact "Sonny Spoon," at 10 on Channel 4, has a lot going for it, and most of that is Mario Van Peebles, who plays the eponymous Monsieur Spoon.
Van Peebles is immediately and immensely likable, and that means, for the most part, that "Sonny Spoon" is, too.
In the premiere, Sonny loses his mentor and partner, the aged detective Sam Abramowitz (Nathan Davis), who has just one more case to settle before retirement. Unfortunately, the case settles him. Sonny spends the hour tracking down the culprit and then trying to prevent him from executing his friend Carolyn Gilder (Terry Donahoe) of the district attorney's office.
The plot and the invented colorful upporting characters are ordinary in the extreme, if ordinariness can have extremes, and straight from the stockpile. But Van Peebles gives Sonny a nimbly ingratiating energy. And the script keeps presenting him with silly excuses to jump into a disguise and ride a wild ruse -- everything, in tonight's show, from a bouncy choir lady at a gospel service to a prissy nerd in a gold hard hat inspecting the raw underbellies of Rolls-Royces.
Van Peebles' most recent TV work was as a vicious dope pusher in the Alfre Woodard movie "The Child Saver." Last year he appeared in a few "L.A. Law" episodes as a sharp-dressed young attorney who quit the firm because he felt it practiced tokenism. He nearly stole the motion picture "Heartbreak Ridge" from its star, Clint Eastwood, but in the end that proved to be petty theft.
This detective series, however otherwise undistinguished, could make him a rather large star.
The rest of the cast is strong, too. Kathleen Freeman, a reliable character actress for decades (she was the maid, Katie, on the "Topper" series in the early '50s) has a hammy good time with the small role of Zelda, all-knowing fortune teller. Joe Shea plays a vendor whose newsstand is the cash-poor Sonny's curbside headquarters.
As the title indicates (NBC Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff reportedly thought it up himself), "Sonny Spoon" is a tad too cute. Sonny's various scams are set up with coy title cards: "A Short Con -- The DMZ" or "The Razzmatazz -- Getting Past the Man." But writer Randall Wallace and director Corey Allen include scenes that give Sonny a human dimension, too, so that he isn't just another of TV's wily jivesters.
He's smart enough, unlike many TV detectives, to know when it's a good idea to be scared.
And although Sonny Spoon is black, the program is relatively and refreshingly free of jokes that exploit this fact. When someone is describing him on the phone, he says, "Right, Ray; con artist. Cute guy." Van Peebles avoids stereotyped TV imagery, except occasionally to spoof it.
Late in the show, Sonny quotes old Sam's scam credo to Carolyn: "Give 'em some of what they expect, and some of what they don't." That's what Cannell & Company have done with "Sonny Spoon," and thanks to Van Peebles, the con works like a charm. Beauty and the Beast'
Ridiculed upon its premiere by cynics and disbelievers (and some of our most erudite television critic persons), "Beauty and the Beast," the CBS fantasy series, has defied detractors and built a loyal following. In tonight's episode, "Promises of Someday," at 8 on Channel 9, the show's appealing qualities are much in evidence.
The chapter includes sepia-toned flashbacks to the days when Vincent, our friendly if angsty underground beast -- old hard-lucky hairy himself -- was but a pussycat, as George Bush might say. The leonine lad of 14 is played by John Franklin; the lionized adult is played, as usual, by Ron Perlman, whose voice seems to wear a fur coat, too.
A mysterious stranger precipitates the plot. Devin Wells, played by Bruce Abbott, is a professional impostor who has posed as doctor, philosopher and chef. This time he calls himself a lawyer, arousing the suspicions of series heroine Catherine Chandler, played by hale Linda Hamilton.
Vincent's father figures in the stranger's troubling memories. He got grumpy when young Vincent and young Devin tangled over a surreptitious carrousel ride and somebody (guess who) ended up with a scratched kisser. "Some relationships can only bring us pain," Dad lectures Vincent, "no matter how much we wish otherwise."
Initial adverse reactions to the series were, honest injun, understandable. It looked like it was going to be a hokey variation on "The Incredible Hulk," with the beast bursting through walls and floors each week to rescue his damsel. But the producers went another route. They have made "Beauty" a romantic adventure series unlike anything else on the air.
"Promises of Someday," which was written by George R.R. Martin and directed by Thomas J. Wright, is only minimally eventful and hardly a dramatic bombshell. But it is drenched in misty atmosphere and true to the spirit of the series.
The production is rich and, for TV, rather literary, even in such details as the bumper preceding commercials. They don't say " 'Beauty and the Beast' will be right back" or even " 'Beauty and the Beast' will continue." They say, "'Beauty and the Beast' will be continued."
Ah yes. And from the look of things, "Beauty and the Beast" will be renewed, too.