CBS continues on its lonely, peculiar and mysterious campaign to bolster the morale of the Great American Fat Man by assuring him he might end up with a svelte, adoring wife and a collection of cute kids who all have quips at the tips of their tongues. And wouldn't think of leaving them there.
This time, in "Center of the Universe," it's the justifiably popular John Goodman who plays the roly-poly papa. Jean Smart, though younger and considerably lighter, plays the loyal wife who dotes on her hefty husband and could scarcely be happier. There may be millions of such odd couples throughout America -- or there may be only three or four, all of them on CBS. Well intended or not, the formula, like John Goodman's pants, is nearing the bursting point.
In the premiere, at 9:30 tonight on Channel 9, lovable John Barnett (Goodman), who runs a successful security service, gets all tingly and misty as his 20th anniversary approaches. To celebrate, he plans a "real" wedding to make up for the one he and his beloved Katie were cheated out of by circumstance back in the 20th century. He presents the little woman with a long-overdue wedding ring while friends and relations prepare for the gala day.
("A gal a day should be enough for any man," Groucho Marx told Margaret Dumont in one of the Marx Brothers pictures, mentioned here only in the hope of sneaking some humor into this review of a comedy series.)
Reminiscing, Barnett recalls how proud he felt when Katie accepted his proposal. The groom wanted to rise up and tell disbelieving passers-by, "Look who's marryin' me!" As with the network's "King of Queens" (making its seventh-season premiere tonight at 9), "Still Standing" and "Listen Up," a supposedly funny fatty has managed to marry a comparative knockout. Just because the format worked half a century ago on "The Honeymooners" doesn't mean it can be bled dry every time frost forms on pumpkins.
Naturally enough, despite the idealized nature of the marriage, there are unexpected complications, which seem awful damn expected and only by the loosest possible definition complicated. Barging in from across the street -- to make this officially an imitation of "Everybody Loves Raymond" as well as of those sitcoms about tubby guys and thin gals -- are Olympia Dukakis as Marge and Ed Asner as Arthur, lovable John's semi-lovable parents.
They don't seem like they could have stood each other for 20 minutes, much less 30 years, and despite the audience's residual affection for sitcom veteran Asner, his boastful yowling isn't terribly endearing. He is funny, though, when trying to push a Malaysian sexual stimulant on his son by telling him it's just the thing for the aging male who's experiencing "a little problem down at the mill."
As for Dukakis, she's just killing time. It's murder in the first degree.
But there's a bright spot, as often occurs, and in this case it's versatile Diedrich Bader as Tommy, John's ne'er-do-well brother who's embarked on a new e'er-do-well plan by signing on as an employee at the security firm. He's already survived an entire month on the job, though apparently he's had a week or two of vacation time to mitigate its grueling hardships. Bader, who had his own short-lived but funny detective show parody on Fox about six generations ago, has a sure touch and a face that's a living invitation to laughter.
There's one more young character, Katie and John's son, who gets into his head such strange ideas as wearing a blazer adorned with the family crest to school one morning.
Unfortunately, the alarm sounded by the two parents makes it look as though they want their child to be a conformist, to join in lock step with the marching mediocrities of the world. They're the center of nobody's universe, and neither is this putrid bomb.
Center of the Universe (30 minutes) premieres tonight at 9:30 on Channel 9.