A howloonious assault on the senses with as much comic potential as anything that's premiered this year, "Good Sports" arrives on CBS tonight rather rough but nearly ready.
The glamour couple of Farrah Fawcett and Ryan O'Neal give the caustic sitcom unquestionable star power, but the big surprise in the show, premiering at 9:30 on Channel 9, is that O'Neal emerges the more appealing performer. He's got a new shaggy-baggy look that makes him more accessible and ingratiating than he's been in anything since "What's Up, Doc?" in 1972.
Fawcett, on the other hand, seems to have taken too seriously her role on the show as a woman cold and resistant to O'Neal's daft charms. She comes across as cold and resistant to everything. Fawcett will have to loosen up and lighten up for the show to succeed.
She and O'Neal play Gayle Roberts and Bobby Tannen, anchors on an all-sports cable network obviously patterned after the roaringly successful ESPN. They're thrown together by fate, once Roberts's previous co-anchor dies, and while Tannen is thrilled, Roberts is miffed.
Why is she so antagonistic to Tannen? The reason dreamed up by writer-producer Alan Zweibel (of "It's Garry Shandling's Show") -- that they once had a long passionate date Tannen failed to follow up with a phone call -- doesn't stand up in court, or at least on the air. It seems too flimsy a pretext for the extremely deep-seated grudge Roberts is carting around with her.
But this spatty "Moonlighting" relationship isn't all that's going on. The program also lampoons the cherished cliches of TV sports journalism (the show makes an ideal companion piece to "Cheers," set in a sports bar of course and airing at 9 -- though on NBC). We not only see the backstage shenanigans of the combating co-stars, we watch them on the air in shows within the show that are almost self-contained satirical skits.
Real sports figures will appear to help this ruse along. In the opener, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar does a terrific job playing himself. Next week, former Redskins quarterback Doug Williams, introduced as the author of the new book "Quarterblack," also gets nimbly into the spirit of the proceedings.
Of course the producers have to work on both the spirit and the proceedings. At the moment, the two elements of the show, the romantic comedy and the satire, don't mesh, and the program, as not-so-smoothly directed by Stan Lathan, suffers from a nagging uncertainty of tone.
If O'Neal and Fawcett are supposed to be a modern-day update of Tracy and Hepburn, the chemistry is still a little off, mainly because of Fawcett's fearsome frostiness. Talk about Ice Ice Baby! Dancing together 'neath the opening credits (in a sequence that recalls Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin cutting an irresistible rug at the end of their film "All of Me"), Fawcett and O'Neal are captivating. When she starts braying at him, the magic begins to warp.
O'Neal is playing by far the more endearing character, a shiftless brat with no maturity genes whatever, who still has his mother looking out for him -- "a self-destructive, irresponsible punk who never grew up," as Fawcett describes him.
In addition to all the other pleasures, major and incidental, the show is blessed with a socko performance by the reliable Lane Smith (who played Nixon in "The Final Days") as the garrulous and fatuous network president, and aren't they all? On the other hand, the addition, as of next week's show, of an imbecilic character called Leach, gratingly played by Paul Feig, was a terrible idea that should be drop-kicked out of the park.
Clearly, the forces behind "Good Sports" want to have as well as give a good time. An aura of playfulness is trying to break through. In a future episode, as a not-so-in joke, O'Neal will be seen reading a copy of "Love Story" and Fawcett a copy of "The Burning Bed." Network insiders suggest the level of hostilities between the two characters will cool somewhat, and that would be welcome.
Fawcett also needs to get a haircut.
The problems appear solvable and the show promising; as "Evening Shade" has evolved into a polished and satisfying show (especially when star Burt Reynolds directs an episode himself), so this show could streamline itself into a high-gloss hit. Even with the awkwardness and tipsiness present at the outset, "Good Sports" is rowdy good fun.