Thea (ABC, 8-8:30 p.m.)
Concept: The black Roseanne.
Our Take: The 1993-94 season is the Era of the Unknown Comic. Had you heard of Brett Butler before she started publicizing her new Grace Under Fire? Was John Mendoza more than vaguely familiar before The Second Half? And what about Thea Vidale, who gets a show named after her? A booming, forceful performer, Vidale plays a single mom who has four rowdy but likable kids and is good at eliciting laughs while teaching them loving life lessons. In other words, this is generic sitcommery that ABC hopes will coast on the strong personality of its star.
Behind the Scenes: Unlike such comics as Jerry Seinfeld and Tim Allen, whose series are closely based on their stand-up personas, Vidale has had to clean up her X-rated act for network TV. Although she is the mother of four in real life, Vidale says, ”My show is my show, and the stand-up is something else.” So what does it say about her that she can curse like a sailor on stage and switch gears to become a sitcom mom? ”It says I’m one hellacious talented bitch.”
Prediction: Unsolved Mysteries and 90210 are solid competitors, but the leftover laugh seekers will probably pick Thea over CBS’ The Trouble With Larry.
The Trouble With Larry (CBS, 8-8:30 p.m.)
Concept: Balki, American Style
Our Take: This is either the high or low concept of the year: Fifteen years ago, an explorer (played by Perfect Strangers‘ Bronson Pinchot — without an accent for once) was abducted by baboons while on his honeymoon. Now he’s back and searches out his remarried wife (Major Dad‘s Shanna Reed). The Trouble With Larry sounds rather like a TV version of the 1940 Cary Grant comedy My Favorite Wife, but don’t expect that kind of class: Pinchot’s talent for clever slapstick doesn’t help this vacuum of a sitcom. In the underwritten role of Reed’s sister, Courteney Cox (Family Ties) is hanging on for dear life.
Behind the Scenes: Some stars won’t admit they were the producers’ second choice for a role, but not Pinchot. ”The role was originally conceived for Larry Hagman,” Pinchot reports with no shame. ”Seriously, they pitched it to him and he said, ‘No, thanks.’ But in honor of Larry, I guess, they kept the name.”
Prediction: Trouble ahead.
The Nanny (CBS, 8:30-9 p.m.; premieres after Oct. 26)
Concept: Mary Poppins crossed with Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.
Our Take: A tough young woman from working-class Queens (Fran Drescher) is hired by a well-to-do Broadway producer (Charles Shaughnessy) to care for his three children. Drescher was wasted in 1991’s early fatality Princesses, but here she’s a scream. Her character has a lot more sex appeal than you might envision in an ideal nanny, but that only adds to the relative sophistication of this shrewd sitcom. Drescher gives one of the best performances of the new season.
Behind the Scenes: ”We were very careful about maintaining her nurturing quality, because it would be very easy for a writer to make her abrasive,” Drescher says of her title character. But the contrast of the street-smart nanny with the straitlaced family — ”the constant mixing of the blue blood and the blue collar,” says Drescher — will drive the series’ plots.
Prediction: Drescher claims the time slot, following the weak Trouble With Larry, ”is not written in stone.” For her sake, we hope not.
South of Sunset (CBS, 9-10 p.m.; premieres after Oct. 26)
Concept: 48 HRS. at the Hotel California
Our Take: Glenn Frey, who in his Eagles rock-star days tried to cultivate a tough-guy demeanor, stars as a hard-boiled L.A. gumshoe paired with a wisecracking ex-con (Aries Spears). From the creators of the moody Middle Ages, Sunset hopes we’ll warm to these downbeat flatfeet.
Behind the Scenes: Frey’s past could pay off in a couple of ways. Recently, boomer country-music stars like Garth Brooks and Vince Gill have made much of the Eagles’ influence on their own songs, bringing the rock band’s oeuvre to fresh prominence. And since Frey’s post-Eagles career has been no great shakes, maybe he can invest his role with an appropriate world-weariness. But will that be enough?
Prediction: Headed south.
Grace Under Fire (ABC, 9:30-10 p.m.;premieres Sept. 22)
Concept: The Southern Roseanne.
Our Take: Sitcom premises don’t get any more generic than this: A newly divorced woman (Brett Butler, heretofore a stand-up known only to comedy cognoscenti) is caring for her three kids. Butler, however, is a smart, savvy presence, and it’s clear that she and the producers are going for Roseanne-style realism, an admirable goal. Costars the invariably excellent Dave Thomas (SCTV) as Grace’s friend Russell.
Behind the Scenes: Roseanne parallel No. 1: Expect to see tabloid stories about Butler’s abusive first marriage: ”They’re probably going to dig him up somewhere,” she says. ”It happened, it’s done. But do you know the phrase the last laugh?” Roseanne parallel No. 2: On-set tantrums. ”I do get mad,” Butler says. ”Sometimes it does get scary.” Roseanne parallel No. 3: ”Next year my [second] husband is getting a series on ABC.” She’s just kidding about that one, folks.
Prediction: Positioned after the powerhouse Home Improvement, Grace is one of this season’s few surefire hits.
Moon Over Miami (ABC, 10-11 p.m.)
Concept: Moonlighting Over Miami
Our Take: This detective series asks us to accept The Rocketeer‘s thick hunk, Bill Campbell, as a bookish, articulate private eye and teams him with a rich young woman (Universal Soldier‘s Ally Walker) who thinks it would be fun to go slumming as a sleuth’s assistant. Desperately hoping that the incessantly glib verbal byplay in this show will make viewers think of it as a Moonlighting for the ’90s, ABC changed the title of the series from Do the Strand (whom were the creators hoping to attract — Roxy Music fans?) to the more memory-jogging Moon Over Miami. South Beach Snoozer is more like it.
Behind the Scenes: Moon may rise or fall based on chemistry between its stars, and Campbell and Walker are potentially explosive. Both have dated costars before (Campbell went out with The Rocketeer‘s Jennifer Connelly, Walker with Santa Barbara‘s Scott Jaeck), and neither seems opposed to an offscreen romance here. ”You’d have to be a piece of lox not to have chemistry with her,” says Campbell. Walker returns the compliment: ”He doesn’t look too bad either.”
Prediction: We give them two months before they start dating — and three before their series is canceled.
More weddings and babies? Maybe. On ABC’s Home Improvement, Al (Richard Karn) ponders a quickie marriage, and Jill (Patricia Richardson) tells Tim (Tim Allen) she wants a daughter. The ever-fluid cast of NBC’s Law and Order undergoes a sex change, replacing Richard Brooks’ assistant DA and Dann Florek’s police lieutenant with female characters played by Jill Hennessy and S. Epatha Merkerson. The kids on Fox’s Beverly Hills, 90210 enter college — except the disaffected Dylan (Luke Perry); Brenda (Shannen Doherty) drops out of the University of Minnesota and returns to L.A. because she misses the gang.