A little bit Mayberry, and a little bit Peyton Place, Evening Shade, Ark. -- at least as defined in the new CBS comedy series named after it -- has a lot of charm, a breezily disarming ambience and a veritably spectacular population.
Most important, "Evening Shade" is a place very likely to send you away happier than when you arrived.
Burt Reynolds, Marilu Henner, Ossie Davis, Charles Durning, Elizabeth Ashley and Hal Holbrook are only part of the cast of this distinctively piquant newcomer, which premieres with a one-hour episode at 8 tonight on Channel 9 and then becomes a half-hour show as of next week.
It's not a sitcom of cheap laughs and potty jokes but a character piece, an evocative portrait of a mythic respite. Apparently there really is an Evening Shade, Ark., but that's essentially irrelevant to the concept of the show and the captivating spell it weaves.
The weaving is not perfect. Linda Bloodworth-Thomason's script is clever and observant -- even if awfully reminiscent of the work of playwright Preston ("A Texas Trilogy") Jones, who died in 1979 -- but the direction of the show, by her husband and coproducer Harry Thomason, is so slack and haphazard that some scenes are all but ruined.
While it's good to see Reynolds back in relaxed, comic, even paunchy form, he needed a good director here to roust him from what comes across sometimes as ennui and other times as lethargy. He's likably sly as always, but too hangdog and mopey much of the time, even allowing for the blues his character is having.
That character, Wood Newton, is a former Pittsburgh Steeler now coaching a backwoods high school team hot into a 2 1/2-year losing streak. When we meet Wood six minutes into the premiere, it's his birthday (they don't say which one) and his wedding anniversary (15th), his team has just lost another game, a stripper has created an embarrassing scene on the field, and he learns that even though he had a vasectomy years ago, his wife is miraculously and inconveniently pregnant again.
Henner plays Ava, the much-younger (33) wife, who is running for the office of local prosecutor and, initially, not too thrilled to be expecting, either. Reynolds and Henner don't hit it off too well in the premiere, but again, poor direction seems largely to blame. Too much is kept in the distance, actors tend to be tethered to invisible posts, and in the last act, during Wood's birthday party at a local barbecue joint, it's hard to tell who's in the room and where they are in relation to each other.
Critics who raved and raved about "Evening Shade" from reading the script forgot about the damage a stinko director can do.
Even so, there are plenty of pleasures to be had from the crowd of cranks and eccentrics created by Bloodworth-Thomason -- affectionately, one feels, and not condescendingly. The people here may be wacky and exasperating at times, but, clearly, this is not a town where you have to be terrified of the streets at night or spend a fortune on deadbolts and burglar alarms.
CBS executives are wild about Michael Jeter, the loose-limbed showstopper from Broadway's "Grand Hotel," who here plays math teacher and Wood's new assistant coach Herman Stiles. Unfortunately, Jeter's appearance in the pilot lasts less than two minutes.
Ossie Davis too deserves more screen time as the proprietor of the barbecue joint. He also narrates the introductory sequence, which is awkwardly assembled but still effective. The Newtons' three kids include 15-year-old Taylor played by Jay R. Ferguson, the cherub-faced Ponyboy on Fox's bomb "The Outsiders."
Elizabeth Ashley's role is the most heavily caricatured, that of Ava's blabby, bitchy sister, but she does get to lecture the guys at the party with this: "If you men had to have some of these babies, you'd be a lot more careful about where you park your Pontiacs."
3 Charles Durning, as Wood's friend and the doctor who performed the faulty vasectomy, is simply and hugely great. He finds a perfect foil in Nub, the town simpleton, touchingly played by Charlie Dell. What's also touching is the way the townsfolk humor, and never ridicule, this slow-mover in their midst.
Linda Gehringer is right on the money too as the stripper, Fontana Beausoleil, who in the last act is trapped inside a cardboard cake.
Is this town a bit small to have its own stripper? Where does she strip, exactly? It doesn't matter. Incongruities like this don't really hurt because this show has such a solid emotional center. "Evening Shade" is a nice place to visit, and if they get a good director, you might even want to live there.
'Going Places' You'd have to look hard to find a more blatant mismatch of show and title than the petrified "Going Places" on ABC. The new sitcom, premiering at 9:30 on Channel 7, tries to be a "Three's Company Plus One," and even at that miserable ambition, it fails.
Two brothers who act like morning-zoo deejays all the time arrive in Los Angeles to work on a "Candid Camera"-type TV show. Aren't they surprised when their boss tells them they'll be living in the same house with two comely ladies! How's that for a setup?
As it turns out, the pairings tend to be more boy-boy and girl-girl than intersexual, but the season is young. One of the women is a cute-cute-cutie played to perfection by Heather Locklear, who wears form-fitting skirts and form-fitting tops. She wears form-fitting everything -- And What a Form to Fit!
In addition to this asset, the show features take-charge gal Holland Taylor as the "Candid Camera" clone. Taylor struts so smartly around the premises you'd think she was working on a really good series.
The other young woman in the house is a neurotic wreck too clearly patterned after the character played by Dinah Manoff on "Empty Nest." To Bruno, a muscleman, she says, "I don't go out with guys whose breasts are bigger than mine," a line stolen from either Oscar Levant or Groucho Marx (sources differ) who remarked upon seeing the film "Samson and Delilah" that he didn't like movies where the leading man had bigger breasts than the leading lady.
Alan Ruck, who plays the taller and dopier brother (a close call on the second point) was featured in the film "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" as Bueller's hypochondriac friend and looks like a young David Lynch.
The trouble with shows like this one -- which was produced by the prolific team of Thomas L. Miller and Robert L. Boyett -- is that they seem to have no inspirations or references except other sitcoms. They're Xeroxes of faxes of photostats. It's amazing they even register on tape.