In network TV, there are Sweeps Months and there are Slumps Months -- or years. Every network takes its turn in ratings hell and finds itself the subject of such recycled jokes as, "What's the difference between ABC and the Titanic? The Titanic had a band."
From the looks of its new fall shows, however -- shows such as the raucously funny "Complete Savages," premiering tonight -- ABC may be on its way out of those dreaded depths even as its parent conglomerate, the Walt Disney Co., seems to be aiming for icebergs rather than trying to avoid them.
"Complete Savages," at 8:30 on Channel 7, takes place in an American home where the social graces of "Animal House" combine with the elegant manners of "The Jerry Springer Show." The resulting environment is, strangely or not, one of loving chaos. Since the household consists of a divorced fireman-father and his five sons, the female population is bound to be low: a housekeeper who quits by setting the family's clothes afire in the back yard, and a very pretty girl named Angela who lives across the street. But the mythos of womanhood dominates by its absence.
This, in other words, is a comedy illustrating one reason why God created Eve: Without her, Adam would have turned the Garden of Eden into a dump -- candy-bar wrappers and empty beer cans everywhere, video games and iPods strangling one another with their tangled cords, pizzas of indeterminate vintage lying half-eaten in their grease-stained boxes. Bliss, yes -- but not a tenable bliss.
Not that the show is saying women are intrinsically the cleaners and cooks of the human menagerie -- only that with an assertive woman around, the boys would feel compelled to make themselves and their quarters at least halfway respectable. The point was made in such classics of yore as "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers." In "Savages," it is updated in wildly and winningly whimsical ways.
Keith Carradine, cast against type, plays sloppy Pop Savage (they're the Savages in more ways than one), who is part of the problem and largely unaware that a solution is needed. But when one of the brainier sons (Andrew Eiden) hears the siren song of fair Angela across the street, the lad realizes how ashamed he is of the home's Dresden decor, and a civilizing spirit begins to ripple through the house. It is encouraged by Dad, who sees remnants of his own First Crush in the lovesick son's moony fixation.
The boys in the cast are talented and distinctive, and make their grossness funny, which isn't easy. This isn't "Trainspotting"; conditions don't become so foul as to be life-threatening. Instead the household has a kind of sweet anarchy. That's best represented by a scene in which Dad and four of the boys watch their brother try to entertain Angela on the couch in the living room -- easily visible through a gaping hole in the floor of the bedroom above.
Dad and the boys whisper hints and guidance and even lower the boom now and then -- a poke with a stick designed to move the clueless kid in the right direction. At one point, a sign is lowered on a wire: "Ask her, Stupid!" (to the school dance).
There's another funny-tender scene earlier, when the stricken son is spying on Angela through the Venetian blinds in a living room window. Carradine simply pulls the blinds all the way up and there they are, the daffy Dad and his smitten son, standing in full view and waving to Angela as if seeing her off to Europe on the QM2.
Producer-writers Julie Thacker-Scully and Mike Scully have captured the way kids really argue and tease each other, and so this domestic comedy, for all its outrageous overstatement, seems more honest than most; the characters have more real character. Mel Gibson, the brooding half-a-billionaire, directed the premiere, suggesting he may actually have a sense of humor. He is also one of the series's executive producers.
Carradine makes his entrance with a line addressed to the youngest son: "Your iguana's in the toilet again -- and I found out the hard way." Later another son moans, "I'd rather be dead than responsible." Engaging and fast-moving, "Complete Savages" is about one of the most depressing challenges facing mankind, or at least certain kinds of men: Growing up. Yech.
It could well turn out to be fun and even slightly, subtly poignant watching civilization attempt to make inroads in the Savage household while the Savages struggle to hold it back -- thereby extending feckless youth for a few more precious days.
Perhaps sensing that they had a grand mal loser on their hands, CBS executives decided to lowercase all the letters in the title of "Dr. Vegas," a gesture presumably intended to make it stand out at least typographically in TV Guide's listings. Don't be fooled; the show's distinctiveness ends there.
"dr. vegas" starts in the gutter and progresses to the sewer, not exactly a feat worth cheering.
Rob Lowe, growing older but still lacking any trace of character in his face, plays the ridiculous title character, Dr. William "Billy" Grant (Dr. William "Billy" Goat would've been better), house physician at a lavish hotel and casino in guess which sinful city of the West. Grant's boss, manager of the hotel, is also his longtime best friend -- one of those Joe Pantoliano types. He is played by -- surprise! -- Joe Pantoliano, last seen in a major part that ended in little pieces on "The Sopranos."
In the "dr. vegas" premiere, at 10 on Channel 9, we get a tour of the doctor's colorful array of patients, from glittery showgirls to disgruntled tourists to an attractive young bride and groom who look innocent but are really a con couple out to fleece the casino. The male half of this duo is played by Steve Sandvoss, currently causing hearts to flutter up storms in the gay-themed film "Latter Days," just out on DVD.
Fans won't see much of Sandvoss, however; in his big scene, his face is made up to suggest he has taken a disfiguring beating at the hands of casino goons. Oddly, as on the miserable NBC series "Las Vegas," we are meant to sympathize with the wealthy and corrupt owners of the casino. It would seem much more natural for the audience to root for the pretty little crooks attempting to ill-get some gains and hit the road with them.
Dr. Grant, who sometimes attends to patients while wearing a purple shirt and faded jeans, has "this 'God' complex," according to his pal -- something from which movie and TV physicians have suffered too many times to count. Randy Jackson, the easily pleased judge on "American Idol," makes an ineffectual cameo appearance, and also dropping by as a wee in-joke is Alex Rocco, who played Las Vegas entrepreneur Moe Greene in "The Godfather." When Greene fell out of favor with the Corleones, you may recall, he got shot in the eye.
That had to hurt like the devil. But then "dr. vegas" is pretty painful, too. It's the TV-series equivalent of a splitting headache. Fortunately, the cure is just a click or two away.