There seems to be a certain amount of gender confusion going on in "High Society," the screechy new CBS sitcom premiering at 9:30 tonight on Channel 9. Female characters on the show act like drag queens -- men playing women -- and mean drag queens at that, since the portrayals are mighty unflattering. The whole thing plays like a misogynistic nightmare.
"High Society" represents CBS's second attempt to rip off the British sitcom "Absolutely Fabulous," imported here for viewing on cable (the first clone was "Cybill," still running). "Ab-Fab" is about two hedonistic madcaps careening and carousing around London. Why it comes off as wickedly funny while this latest imitation seems so lame and nasty may have something to do with the fact that "Ab-Fab" was created by women. Its characters had complexity as well as style.
There's no more complexity to "High Society" than there is wit.
The premiere introduces us to Jean Smart as a foul-mouthed trash novelist who smokes and drinks heavily and makes her entrance tonight in the fetal position on her best friend's dining room table, where she fell asleep the night before. Mary McDonnell plays the best friend, who runs a big publishing house but only, we're told, because she won it from her husband in a divorce settlement.
Into their raucous lives comes Val, played by Faith Prince, a frumpy college chum who has found herself not only divorced but penniless. She wants to move in with the publisher but the novelist considers her horribly un-chic and dull. A crisis of sorts ensues and will apparently be the basis for future would-be comic conflict on the show.
Smart's character is a shrill banshee, McDonnell's is veritably androidal, and Prince's is a grab bag of hausfrau cliches (she makes bundt cakes, and so on). Meanwhile, the male characters are essentially eunuchs, colorless and sexless in equal measure -- although right-wingers always criticizing TV for its alleged liberalism may be pleased that the one mildly admirable fellow on the show is the publisher's 17-year-old son, a clean-cut Young Republican.
He's a latter-day incarnation of Auntie Mame's nephew, Patrick.
The tattered jokes include references to menstruation, genitalia and fellatio, all sadly standard subjects on sitcoms now. Smart is told by McDonnell, "If someone were having a seizure in your bathtub, you'd throw in your laundry." About the only notes of agreeable fun are sounded by reliable veteran Jayne Meadows as the publisher's mother, full of brass and pizazz, and Luigi Amodeo as a very fashion-conscious male secretary.
Italian American viewers may, however, consider him an unnecessary ethnic stereotype.
CBS, the Crumbling Broadcasting System, has managed to build a fairly solid Monday night lineup, mostly with shows designed to have strong female appeal. Male viewers tuning in something as cold and cruel as "High Society" and asking themselves "Is this what women want?" can only hope the answer to that is no. This comedy isn't caustic; it's toxic.