Shhhh. Shhhh. It's summertime, and the broadcast networks have gone to sleep. After three months of intense and self-destructive hibernation, they'll wake up again in the fall. Sort of.
Meanwhile, on cable, first-run fare, like June, is busting out all over. Every year it's pretty much the same: Cable networks use the summer months to attract new viewers, and when autumn rolls around, the audience for the broadcast networks is a little bit smaller than it was the previous year. In fact, Nielsen reports that basic cable just took a bigger chunk out of the networks' May sweeps ratings than ever before.
Pay-cable channels are also leaping into the void. Tomorrow night, HBO offers fresh episodes of two popular sitcoms: "Sex and the City," returning at 9, and "Arli$$," which follows at 9:30. Yes, they're both quite popular. They just aren't very funny.
"Sex and the City" stars the radically scraggly Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie Bradshaw, a saucy New Yorker who writes a column about relationships as she prances around Manhattan looking for love. Carrie has three friends who are all more engaging than she is: Kim Cattrall as Samantha, Kristin Davis as Charlotte and Cynthia Nixon as Miranda. Unfortunately, they are all fatuous to some degree, spending their time eating, gabbing, shopping, gabbing, having sex and then gabbing again.
In the season premiere, Carrie is trying to recover from a breakup with her boyfriend, played by leaden Chris Noth. It's a mystery what she sees in him or, for that matter, he in her, although the opening credit sequence makes it crystal clear that she has large breasts; they are prominently displayed as she gets splashed with water.
"After a breakup," Parker tells us in her nagging narration, "the city becomes a deserted battlefield loaded with emotional land mines. You have to be very careful where you step, or you could be blown to pieces." And so on, ad infinitum, about mating dances and rituals. It's at best a warmed-over and watered-down imitation of what Woody Allen was doing years ago.
The show attracts viewers because of its smart-alecky sexual candor. Samantha, we learn, loves her boyfriend despite his "shortcoming," a physical feature that gets talked about almost endlessly. Charlotte's boyfriend has the distracting habit of grabbing at his privates in public--frequently. Miranda's honeybunch loves to jabber in bed, quizzing her about how things are going and whether she's happy, and talking dirty.
Parker may be sexy, but she's not pretty. Her blond hair hangs down in hideous gnarled strands. She looks for all the world like Beulah Witch of the old "Kukla, Fran and Ollie" show--right down to the wart on her pointy-pointy chin. None of this would matter if her acting were not so monotonously repetitious.
The series reportedly has a substantial following among gay males, perhaps because the women talk tirelessly about men. Also, undraped males are as likely to appear as undraped females. On the season premiere, for example, the ladies find themselves in the New York Yankees' locker room, ogling and giggling.
First woman: "Did you see that bulge?"
Second woman: "He was wearing a cup."
First woman: "Well, honey, his cup runneth over."
The series is the creation of Darren Star, who scored big with "Melrose Place" on Fox, then crashed and burned with "Central Park West" on CBS. His range of interests seems very limited and his rapier wit duller than a Q-Tip. But at least the series is airing first-run episodes.
So is "Arli$$," the strained sitcom about a successful but neurotic sports agent named Arliss Michaels. Robert Wuhl, who plays Michaels, also created the series, executive-produces it and directed and co-wrote the season premiere. He believes in stretching himself onionskin thin. Maybe if he had two or three fewer tasks the show would be brighter and more original.
Wuhl does attempt something a tad daring on tomorrow night's show. In the midst of the forced, over-the-top high jinks, Michaels is confronted with the fact that he may have colon cancer. The doctor tells him not to worry, Michaels agrees not to, and the next instant he is shopping around for a proper mausoleum.
Meanwhile two colleagues in his office run across a little old lady with a cache of seemingly rare baseball cards. She is unaware they're so valuable--or are they? Part of the collection is a baseball autographed by "Thai Cobb."
Clearly "Arli$$" has its moments, but virtually all the characters are double-dealing, back-stabbing lice, so it is impossible to cheer any of them on. Guest-star sports figures like, tomorrow night, Roger Clemens, tend to give embarrassingly inept performances and also are portrayed mostly as selfish rotters. A viewer couldn't be blamed for asking, "Do I really want to know these dreadful people?" and answering resoundingly in the negative.
CAPTION: Sarah Jessica Parker prances through "Sex and the City" looking for love in all the wrong places. Would her luck improve if she changed her hair?
CAPTION: Jim Turner, left, Robert Wuhl, Sandra Oh and Michael Boatman are among the back-stabbing characters on "Arli$$."