"Picket Fences" may not be high in family values, but it does have a family, and it does have values, albeit of the twisted sort. After that, it's every man, woman and child for themselves.
The new CBS series, from former "L.A. Law" producer David E. Kelley,
premieres as a two-hour movie at 9 tonight on Channel 9. It establishes its tone during the first scene, a community production of "The Wizard of Oz" that stops cold when the actor playing the Tin Man keels over and clanks to the floor.
Asks a woman rushing forward to help: "Is it his heart?"
Set in Rome, Wis., the CBS series centers mainly on the Brock family: Sheriff Jimmy (Tom Skerritt), psychiatrist Jill (Kathy Baker) and the requisite number of cute kids (three). But all kinds of odd, peculiar and weird things are going on in town, which as TV towns go is closer to Twin Peaks than it is to Mayberry.
Perhaps the most satisfying attribute of the premiere is that it is full of unexpected turns that are likely to rivet your attention and tickle your fancy. Or maybe the other way around.
At times those turns are just pointlessly unpleasant, however, and the show is punctuated with the kind of sick, shock humor Kelley plied on "L.A. Law." Sometimes the touches are absurdly far-fetched; Kelley asks us to believe that the local newspaper would treat the Tin Man's death as a joke when reporting it on the front page.
A letter from CBS publicity, meanwhile, asks that "certain key elements of mystery and surprise" in the premiere not be revealed, "namely the scene where a body is pulled from a dishwasher" because, says the letter, "we believe this ought to be a funny, unexpected pay-off for the audience."
First of all, the dishwasher death has already been revealed elsewhere. Second, the CBS contention that this sight is going to be greeted by viewers as "funny" seems a key to what's wrong with "Picket Fences." Even in a TV season where most shows doggedly refrain from going far enough, this one goes too far, some of its outrageousness seeming self-congratulatory and gratuitous, and just plain mean.
Other elements of the opening-night plot include a visiting music act, the Contrition Sisters, who give new meaning to the phrase "When in Rome," mainly by doing many a Roman; the sheriff's investigation into the Tin Man's murder, which crisscrosses with the sheriff's wife's medical practice; and the cutest of the Brock kids, Zack (Adam Wylie),
suffering through the agony of a "bashful bladder."
Often engaging, inventive, well acted and wickedly funny, "Picket Fences" keeps shooting itself in the foot with tastelessness disguised as daring. Irritating as it may frequently be, however, "Picket Fences" also seems the new fall drama most likely to become habit-forming. You may love it, you may hate it, but you're liable to be hooked.
'The Golden Palace'
How you react to CBS's "Golden Palace," a Bea Arthurless follow-up to NBC's long-running hit "The Golden Girls," will probably depend on how much emotional investment you already have in the characters.
What I discovered, watching tonight's pilot episode (airing at 8 on Channel 9), is that I had a lot, especially when it comes to Betty White as blithe, chipper, lighter-than-airhead Rose Nylund, one of the great creations of a glorious comic acting career.
White has one scene tonight, Rose's confrontation with a stocking-masked burglar ("Oh my, aren't you warm in that?") that isn't just funny, it's beautiful.
The premise of the show is that the three remaining "Girls" have mysteriously decided to purchase and live in a small, old Miami Beach art deco hotel. Naturally the show is cursed with the aura of aftermath -- or perhaps the aura of "AfterMASH," the notorious failed attempt to extend the success of "M*A*S*H" after it closed down in 1983 -- but if one has a good time, so what?
I had a virtually semi-wonderful time.
Written by Susan Harris, who created the original show on orders from former NBC boss Brandon Tartikoff, and directed by Terry Hughes, who did most of the episodes of the old show, "Golden Palace" gets off to a brisk and funny start, mainly by giving Estelle Getty, as the outspoken 87-year-old Sophia, the first line.
The old house is sold, the women carted out en masse, and we're at the Golden Palace hotel before we know it, or why. One problem, though, is that the opening episode doesn't establish living quarters for the women. They just roam rootlessly around the hotel, from the lobby to the kitchen and so on. Suddenly they don't seem grounded, and the effect is disconcerting.
There are too many jokes about the ravenous sexual appetite of Blanche (Rue McClanahan), always the most confounding topic on the old show. And new foils set up for the stars get off to awkward starts: Don Cheadle as Roland, the man at the front desk, and Cheech Marin,
of Cheech and Chong, as Chuy Castillos, hot-tempered Mexican chef. Marin does not look happy to be there.
Cheadle gets the most tasteless punch line on the premiere. A little boy running from authorities says, "Hide me" to Roland, and Roland says, "Hide you? What are you, Anne Frank?" They owe us an apology for that one.
Rushing in repeatedly to save the day, however, White is in high style. She has worked and prospered during all five decades of television (her first series, "Life With Elizabeth," aired in 1953),
and yet she seems faster and fresher than ever. Arthur's absence is felt (and duly noted in a sly joke or two), but without Betty White, this is one show that clearly could not go on.
Bob Newhart has earned not only our loyalty, but our support. There's always been something civilized and sane about his comedy, and he's never sunk to smirky smut. Plus, he's funny.
Newhart's new CBS comedy series, shrewdly titled "Bob" and premiering at 8:30 tonight on Channel 9, finds him in as fine a fettle as one could want, this time playing not a psychiatrist or an innkeeper but a comic strip artist reduced to drawing greeting cards until a call from out of the blue lures him to the big city.
It seems a loony editor (and most are) wants to revive the Mad Dog superhero character Bob abandoned years earlier, but he wants to make certain changes -- though nothing that wouldn't destroy the entire original concept.
Newhart's humor is, of course, largely reactive. He gets laughs in the premiere just looking at the oddballs around him with questioning or appalled stares. He gets a laugh saying, "How about that?" and another saying, "Bran muffins?" With Johnny Carson temporarily off TV, we don't have many comedians around who can evoke hearty chuckles with panic-stricken stares. Newhart is an American original, and we should cherish him.
The able new cast includes Carlene Watkins as Bob's wife Kaye, Cynthia Stevenson as world-weary daughter Trisha, John Cygan as the maniac editor, and Timothy Fall as a cuckoo cartoonist who draws caricatures of people with leeches on their faces.
This new incarnation of the Bob Newhart persona has a bit harder and sharper edge than his previous series. One character, the boss of a gigantic communications firm, is an unseen eminence who booms commands at people through Big Brotherly loudspeakers and telephone hookups. More than ever, Bob seems the put-upon, pacifist Everyman who, when pushed to the breaking point, crumples as artfully as the fender of a well-designed car.
But he crumples with dignity, and suffers with it too. "Bob" and Bob are both joys to watch.
'The Round Table'
Maybe Aaron Spelling can't help himself. It could be some kind of a sick compulsion. He's a serial polluter, trashing up the television landscape whenever some dumb network gives him the opportunity. Do you suppose he writes "Stop me, before I produce again?" on the mirrors of his gigantic Brentwood mansion?
"The Round Table," Spelling's latest exercise in muddle-headed pandering, premieres tonight at 9 on Channel 4, another NBC attempt to woo the youthful audience catered to by the Fox network. Since it's centered at a Georgetown bar, you'd think at least they would have called it "The Round Table, 20007."
But then, it's a largely unrecognizable Washington we see in the series, a town where District cabs have meters and where Latino gangs are a major urban problem.
Rather a baldly obvious rip-off of the flop movie "St. Elmo's Fire," the series convenes its cast of young professionals at the bar where they trade sob stories and laments and even accusations about crab lice. Nothing they say or do has much relation to life as lived at any location on this planet.
The cast includes Roxann Biggs as Jennifer Clemente, novice prosecutor for the U.S. attorney's office; David Gail as the hunktilious Danny Burke, frequently shirtless bartender and blue-collar love squeeze to Jennifer; and Stacy Haiduk as Rhea, the daughter of a newspaper publisher who upsets mom by announcing her plans to join the FBI.
"I want to do investigation!" gushes Rhea to an apoplectic Mom played by Jessica Walter, who somewhere along the way became a dead ringer for Polly Bergen. The publisher she plays actually directs the editorial operations of the paper from the newsroom floor. She also wears a bright red dress to the party she hosts, at which party she slaps Rhea in the face. Yes, Mom has obviously been inspired by myths surrounding, among others, Nancy Reagan. How droll.
The action slogs listlessly from confrontation to confrontation. When a poodle is run over by a car and killed, the cop who happens to be at the scene laughs. Ah, but we're a cold bunch here in the capital, aren't we? Not half so cold as "The Round Table," however. GE's light bulbs have more personality than this lifeless slab.