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NewsRadio; Hope & Gloria

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When a sitcom works-when its cast, script, and direction snap into place, they’ve done their job, and yours is but to laugh-it’s probably the most satisfying of television experiences. The artful trickiness of pulling off this achievement is illustrated by two new situation comedies, Newsradio (NBC, Tuesdays, 8:30- 9 p.m.) and Hope & Gloria (NBC, Thursdays, 8:30-9 p.m.). Both shows feature talented casts: NewsRadio stars Saturday Night Live’s Phil Hartman and Kids in the Hall’s Dave Foley, while Hope & Gloria features Cynthia Stevenson, just about the only reason to have watched Bob Newhart’s most recent series, the unfortunately ill-conceived Bob. Both shows were created by folks with solid laff pedigrees, NewsRadio by Paul Simms (need I say more than The Larry Sanders Show?) and Hope & Gloria by Bill and Cheri Steinkellner (Bob, but also producers of Cheers). Hope & Gloria is good stuff, with a consistently superlative performance by Stevenson. NewsRadio, however, is instantly, obviously, the better show, because it not only has all the classic sitcom ingredients but also adds a new, more refined aggression to the mix. Set in a New York City all-news radio station, NewsRadio features Foley as Dave Nelson, the freshly hired news director for WNYX. Hartman plays Bill McNeal, an arrogant boob of a news anchor who thinks he’s a slick master of office politics. All around them are the sort of wisecracking supporting players whose personalities are in the process of becoming clear to us. (This is yet another not-often-remarked-upon sitcom pleasure-getting to know new characters slowly, scene by scene, over a period of months.) Hartman is already doing a brilliant job in a difficult role. After all, how does anyone do a boob anchorman without aping the definitive one, Ted Knight’s Ted Baxter? But Hartman has figured out how to do it. His Bill isn’t just a fool-he’s a mean fool, someone who relishes making other people squirm. It’s a testament to Hartman’s stylized yet genuine charm-with his crinkly eyes and lizard’s smile-that he makes Bill as likable as he is. As for Foley, well, I can’t say I was a big Kids in the Hall fan; call me picky, but there’s something about a show being simultaneously smug and fey that rubs me the wrong way. But in this sitcom, Foley has a quality that sets him apart from other comic actors: He knows how to portray a shy, polite, introverted man who is not a total dweeb. His Dave is also smart and resourceful. Foley’s shrewd, understated style here is much closer to that of the English comic Rowan Atkinson than to any American model. Hope & Gloria, by contrast, is a much more standard sitcom. Stevenson plays ^ Hope, a shy, straitlaced woman whose husband has recently left her. Her across-the-hall neighbor is Gloria (Jessica Lundy), a brassy hairdresser. This show too has a boob broadcaster: Hope is an associate producer for a Pittsburgh TV talk show hosted by Dennis Dupree, played by Growing Pains’ Alan Thicke. Unlike Hartman, Thicke opts for a virtual Ted Baxter impersonation, which quickly becomes a real pain. It also looks as if H & G is going to commit a brazen rip-off of Home Improvement’s never-fully-seen next-door neighbor with a gasbag character named Roma (Dee Dee Rescher) who lives behind a window shade in the apartment across the air shaft. Lundy overdoes her hardheaded but gold-hearted role, even if Hope got a nice line out of it in the pilot: ”You talk tough, but deep down inside, you’re just a big mushy-gush.” But Stevenson is endlessly subtle as the dithery Hope. And if I tell you that one of the funniest things I’ve heard all year is the way she delivers the punchline, ”I’m like one of Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings-I’m all pistil and stamen!” you’ll just have to tune in to see why. NewsRadio: A- Hope & Gloria: B