Assuming the Super Bowl goes on as scheduled -- and God help us if it doesn't -- then "Davis Rules" will go on as scheduled too. The new ABC sitcom is this year's winner of one of the most prized perches in television, just after this biggest of big games.
ABC did not make the first show, which will air at approximately 10:30 p.m. tomorrow on Channel 7, available for preview. But the second, airing in the show's regular time slot on Tuesday at 8:30 p.m., turns out to be a relaxed, ingratiating trifle with flashes of magical energy -- virtually all of those provided by series regular Jonathan Winters.
"Series regular"? The term only technically fits Winters, who, at 65, may finally be getting a weekly character assignment that accommodates his gigantic but quixotic talents. He plays a retired Marine Corps gunnery sergeant named Gunny who is helping his widowed son Dwight Davis, played by Randy Quaid, raise three sons. Dwight's a grammar school teacher who gets promoted, over his initial objections, to principal.
For three decades, Jonathan Winters has been popping up on television to inspire varying degrees of delight, usually unbridled. He has never been funnier than when wildly winging it years ago on Jack Paar's "Tonight Show" or on Paar's subsequent prime-time hour. Many producers have attempted to package that improvisatory brilliance in series form, but it usually resisted the packaging.
About the only exception was Winters's occasional manic guest shots on "Mork and Mindy" opposite Robin Williams, who has often credited Winters as his inspiration.
The producers of "Davis Rules" (who include Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner, the team behind "Roseanne" and "The Cosby Show") gave Winters room to roam with this character, letting him incorporate impromptu bits with scripted lines. The formula gives every sign of working.
Winters is still a joy to behold and a wonder to watch. That may be trite, but it's true.
On Tuesday's show, Gunny briefly plays soldier with the kids in the living room and exclaims, "I'm gonna call for an air strike!" ABC executives, who have been jumpily canceling episodes of the new drama series "Under Cover" because they make mention, however tangentially, of the Persian Gulf War, is nevertheless not going to excise that line, a network spokesman says.
How very open-minded of them.
Subtract Winters from "Davis Rules" and you have an achingly standard but not disagreeable sitcom. Quaid's comic talents are limited, to be kind; his year as a member of the "Saturday Night Live" cast was a dud, and he projects very little fatherly warmth as Davis. But he'll do. On next Tuesday's show, he tells Winters: "I think your commute is too much. You know, the one you make between here and Mars."
Also working in the show's favor is a wonderfully non-neurotic actress named Patricia Clarkson as Cosmo, a love interest for Dad who appears on Tuesday's show but may not be on Sunday's. Wafting onto the scene as a tutor for the boys, Clarkson becomes an instant heroine to all the men in this previously womanless environment, and probably to most of the people watching the show.
The kids are good too -- not sickly slick like most sitcom brats. More than holding his own is Rigoberto Jimenez, who plays not one of the sons but a portly pal from the neighborhood named Rigo. Jimenez is a winningly natural performer.
Whatever little town all this is supposed to be taking place in, it brings to mind Evening Shade, the cozy burg from the increasingly likable CBS series of the same name. Perhaps one network prescription for these frighteningly uncertain times will be a proliferation of simple-pleasure folksy comedies set in Mayberry-like settings. We could do worse.
TV has far fewer new ideas than resurrected old ones. In the case of "Davis Rules," the revival is welcome. Maybe nobody will love it, but it would seem almost everybody's going to like it at least a little.