There's bad news and there's "Good News." The bad news is that executives at Paramount's young UPN network have decided to start their fall season almost a month early, the scalawags. Fall TV seasons should be put off as long as possible, in the interest of national sanity.
But "Good News," one of UPN's shows, is an encouraging surprise, a sitcom that has heart and charm and not just the usual gag reflex. It features a mostly African American cast, it premieres tonight at 9 on Channel 20, and it rousingly lives up to its title.
Two other UPN shows debut tomorrow night, both negligible: "Hitz," starring foulmouthed comic Andrew Dice Clay, at 9 p.m. and "Head Over Heels," about life at a Miami dating service, following at 9:30. These are really smutcoms more than sitcoms, with most of the jokes cheap ones about sex in its infinite varieties.
By sharp contrast, "Good News" is set at an urban church, though that doesn't mean it's preachy. David P. Ramsey, an instantly engaging actor, plays Pastor David Randolph, newly arrived minister at a Protestant house of worship called the Church of Life. Randolph has, literally, big shoes to fill: His predecessor was a giant of a man with an oversize leather chair and a stuffed grizzly bear in his office.
Pastor Randolph is a fish in hostile waters, greeted on his first day by church officials who are angry that one of their own didn't get the job -- and promptly quit. Other problems to solve include livening up the church choir (which soon sounds glorious) and helping a young man in the congregation break the news to his mother that he's gay.
Ramsey is smooth and easy to like but certainly not bland, and he appears to qualify as a genuine discovery. The other great performer on the premiere is Roz Ryan as Mrs. Dixon, mother of the gay lad. Ryan is awe-inspiring, a force of nature, a living monument to motherhood and womanhood. Young Rose Jackson Moye is endearing, too, as a church secretary who develops a viselike crush on the pastor, but the role was recast after the pilot was taped, and so another actress will replace Moye in future episodes.
That the choir sounds glorious is no accident. Its members include former pop star Billy Preston on organ and Carol Dennis, who once sang backup for Bob Dylan, as chief soloist. A UPN spokeswoman says there'll be a gospel number on every show.
"Good News" was created by old pro Ed. Weinberger, one of the guiding writers on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and also creator of the mid-range NBC hit "Amen," with Sherman Hemsley. This is not just "Amen" all over again, since the new comedy is subtler and sweeter by far. It has potential for cheering up everybody who sees it.
"Hitz," on Tuesday, is set in a record company, with Clay typecast as the loutish, sexist, coldblooded boss. Clay tried to remake his image last year as a less abrasive clod on a CBS sitcom, but that failed so he's his old dirty self again. His first line on the show is a command to an employee: "Shut your pie-hole, snapper-head." That pretty much sets the tone.
Jokes about penis size dominate the premiere, which is distinguished only by a brief visit from Coolio, the rap star.
The series, from MTV Productions, includes numerous plugs for MTV and its upcoming video awards special, always one of the most entertainingly ghastly fiascoes of the year. The low point on "Hitz" is reached during a bout of dueling "yo mama" jokes along the lines of "Yo mama is so nasty, I had phone sex with her and got an ear infection." A mere "ugh" hardly suffices.
"Head Over Heels" bubbles over with sex jokes, too, but they're less tasteless than those on "Hitz." Peter Dobson, winningly featured on a short-lived CBS series of a few years back called "Johnny Bago," plays a lecherous lad named Jack who runs a dating service with his better-mannered brother (Mitchell Whitfield) in Miami's South Beach. The receptionist, played by Cindy Ambuehl, is a former stripper who's also a computer whiz -- a cute touch.
Actor Patrick Bristow, formerly of "Ellen," steals the show as a crispy little office worker who may or may not be gay and who claims to be celibate at any rate. While stealing this show is, as the saying goes, petty theft, Bristow at least has a merry time doing it. And unlike "Hitz," "Heels" doesn't come off as ugly and vicious.
"Good News" remains the standout. UPN's tidings don't get much gladder than this. CAPTION: David Ramsey plays the pastor of a contentious congregation in "Good News."