Tony Kleinman is no George Costanza, but you can hardly blame Jason Alexander for trying to make him one. Alexander made Costanza a comedy immortal on "Seinfeld." Since his previous departures from that prototype have failed, Alexander essentially returns to it in his new sitcom, "Listen Up," even though this time he's married with children and holds down an actual job.
When Kleinman goes ballistic and twists himself into a swivet, however, the George genes are apparent and, in fact, still funny. So though technically Alexander is playing a character based on Washington Post sports columnist and ESPN blabbermouth Tony Kornheiser, "Listen Up" works best if you just ignore the minor details and enjoy Alexander's frustration, rancor, irritation and paranoia. Nobody does them better.
People who know Kornheiser personally or through exposure to his often inspired work probably won't see any rousing resemblance between the two Tonys. In the premiere of the new CBS sitcom, at 8:30 tonight on Channel 9, Kornheiser-Kleinman has been reduced to the cliches of sitcom fatherhood anyway: a put-upon chump who is forever trying to be cool enough to please his kids and suffers their rebukes when he fails.
In the old days, parents disciplined children, but in TV sitcoms, it's almost always the other way around. Advertisers cater to MTV brats and the powerful influence they hold over what parents buy.
Tony decides in the premiere to become a columnist for what amounts to the Style section while remaining co-host (opposite a ponytailed Malcolm Jamal-Warner) of a sports shout show called "Shut Up and Listen." He gets a sound scolding from his teenage daughter when, at one of her soccer games, he yells coaching tips from the sidelines. He does behave like an obnoxious boob and embarrasses the girl terribly.
(There's at least one at every game, and every kids' baseball game too. According to Tinsel Town lore, Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his pre-governor days, used to run along the sidelines at his kids' soccer games screaming, in Hollywoodese, "Close da deal! Close da deal!").
The daughter has a right to be angry but she goes on and on about it, and Dad is tormented with guilt, or something. Such home-based situations are not promising, and viewers may long to see more of Tony at work, barking and braying and screwing up. Also, Jamal-Warner's character at this point is no character at all, just a prop. When Tony stages an unlikely impromptu production number about hating soccer, Jamal-Warner is sealed off behind a wall of falling balloons and confetti. It's insulting.
Wendy Makkena is fine as Tony's wife, Daniella Monet is irritating as his irritating daughter, and Will Rothhaar can't really make anything distinctive of the Kleinmans' young son.
In terms of comparisons, "Listen Up," while hardly a breakthrough of any kind, is at least a quantum leap up from "Dave's World," the feeble old CBS sitcom based on the life of another newspaper columnist, Dave Barry. That dopey thing ran for years and had almost no energy at all. Alexander's tremendous oomph might be enough to keep "Listen Up" several steps ahead of Old Man Cancellation and his butterfly net.
'Second Time Around'
Isn't it about the third or fourth time around for the title "Second Time Around"? No matter, probably, since nothing by that name has been a seminal masterpiece, this latest version certainly included. And yet the stars of the new UPN sitcom, real-life honeybunches Boris Kodjoe and Nicole Parker, are pretty and pleasant enough to keep the frail frigate afloat, flimsy trifle though it be.
In the premiere, at 9:30 tonight on Channel 20, we meet handsome Jackson (Kodjoe, of course) and feisty Ryan, celebrating in style their 30th anniversary -- "The best 30 days of marriage two people have ever had." This marriage had a dress rehearsal. They were wed before when much younger, got a divorce, and in the interim realized that they were truly made for each other after all.
So where is the source of comic friction? Good question. You have half an hour to find it. As a couple, they're a kind of manic-depressive blend, with Parker playing the more volatile of the two, Kodjoe the calmer -- though he does get a tad testy when he learns his wife posed for a nude painting. She, on the other hand, blows her top when, at a party, a girlfriend from the between-marriages era tells Jackson, "Damn we were good together."
Aw-oh! Sparks are going to fly! Well -- not exactly fly and not exactly sparks, but then who needs another show where people scream and shout? The low-key conflicts of "Second Time Around" are kind of refreshing if not particularly rib-tickling. They're more like rib-nudging, but that's okay. The show has a mild warmth and sense of goodwill that most comedies about relationships lack.
Apparently the young-younger-youngest audiences so craved by UPN and the WB are becoming less appealing to network executives, and so one can sense a general if slight improvement in the sophistication of their programming this season. Thus when Parker says, "It's a new day. We're older and wiser," she may be speaking not only for the couple, but for the network, too. And that calls for a toast just as much as the 30-day anniversary does.