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Fall TV preview: Monday's new shows

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THE SECRET DIARY OF DESMOND PFEIFFER
Introducing this season’s winner of the what-drug-were-they- smoking-when-they-created-this-show award: UPN’s The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer (pronounced puh-fighfer; the P isn’t silent), a sitcom about the British black butler of Abraham Lincoln. Airing Mondays at 9 p.m. opposite Ally McBeal — that other show featuring a skinny lawyer — this Benson-meets- Married…With Children-meets-Ken Burns half hour could be the most bizarrely mesmerizing thing on TV since H. Ross Perot.

Historical accuracy isn’t pfirst priority. Lincoln is portrayed as an oafish oversexed bumbler with gay tendencies (he muses lustily over the washboard stomachs of the Union troops), while high-fiving butler Pfeiffer (Chi McBride) is the real White House brain. A trash-talking First Lady (Christine Estabrook) makes for a not-so-subtle Hillary clone. And there are enough libido gags to provoke blushes from Wild Bill himself. ”Lincoln is so revered, he seemed like a decent target: Could the greatest President of all time stand up to the intense scrutiny that goes on today?” says exec producer Barry Fanaro. ”And, I don’t know, pork-chop sideburns and muskets sounded interesting to us.”

Interesting for an episode, but a series? You be the judge: In one upcoming episode, Honest Abe attends his high school reunion, only to realize everyone still thinks he’s a geek; in another, he has primitive cybersex over the telegraph. ”This is exactly the show we want to put on our air to say, ‘Wake up! We’re alive over here! We do cool TV too!’ ” says UPN Entertainment president Tom Nunan. Adds Dann Florek, who plays the Prez, ”If we can get half the audience to laugh and piss off the other half, we’ll be right on target.” Can’t hardly wait for that May-sweeps assassination episode. BOTTOM LINE Must see (to believe).

GUYS LIKE US
CONCEPT Two single fellows (Bumper Robinson and Singled Out‘s Chris Hardwick) get a new roommate: one of the guys’ 6-year-old brother (Maestro Harrell).
THE SCOOP Give Hardwick credit for being refreshingly frank about why he’s in this series: ”My criteria was to get a job. That I fell into this show was luck.” The real star, however, is the diminutive but cunning Harrell. Says creator-exec producer Dan Schneider: ”I first met him for dinner at the Bel Age Hotel. During the meal, two women came up to the table and said, ‘We were just noticing from across the room — you’re so cute!’ You could just feel this kid’s charisma.”
BOTTOM LINE Maestro is a cutie, but the adults aren’t amusing — and if it’s kids people want to see in this time period, they’d be better off at The WB with 7th Heaven.

DIRESTA
CONCEPT A transit cop (comic and former transit cop John DiResta), his funny job, and his funny family.
THE SCOOP Says DiResta, ”I went from being a cop and a comedian to worrying about time slots.” Are the suits listening to him, as far as story ideas go? ”My name’s on the show,” he says, ”but Paramount and UPN pay the bills.” Doesn’t bode well for transit-cop verisimilitude.
BOTTOM LINE All the elements (appealing premise, alert supporting cast) are in place, but somebody forgot the punchlines.

CONRAD BLOOM
CONCEPT Beleaguered, good-guy copywriter (Mark Feuerstein) has his hands full with his family (whiny mom is Linda Lavin), work (a burned-out colleague is played by Barney Miller‘s Steve Landesberg), and his neurotic friends. Almost makes you yearn for Must-She TV, doesn’t it?
THE SCOOP Of Conrad’s relationship with his mother, executive producer Marco Pennette says, ”It’s about becoming a parent to your parent.” In other news, Conrad will date a supermodel!
BOTTOM LINE Light on laughs, drenched in guilt — like Working (and a thousand other office/family comedies) with more neuroses.

THE KING OF QUEENS
CONCEPT A working-class guy (Everybody Loves Raymond‘s Kevin James) with simple desires — e.g., a 70-inch TV — and a loving wife (Fired Up‘s Leah Remini) finds his world pinched when his rascally father-in-law (Seinfeld‘s Jerry Stiller) moves in.
THE SCOOP James hopes it will remind viewers of The Honeymooners: ”They made funny stuff out of everyday things; that’s what I want to do.” And costar Remini says she doesn’t mind being compared to Alice Kramden: ”I thought she was great. [Ralph and Alice] loved each other. That’s what the show was about, not him yelling.”
BOTTOM LINE A solid, earthy sitcom — and a strong, sensible bridge between Cosby and the fab Raymond.

HYPERION BAY
CONCEPT Prodigal son (Saved by the Bell‘s Mark-Paul Gosselaar, above) goes home to start a company he hopes will save his small town’s economy. Wouldn’t you know, he’s got a jealous brother gumming things up.
THE SCOOP Pretty low-rent considering the source: thirtysomething‘s Joseph Dougherty. Nonetheless, ”Joe says this is thirtysomething with more steak, less sizzle,” says Gosselaar, who hopes to shake his teen-idol status: ”People feel like they were my best friend for six years; what can you do?” Be grateful? Most actors never experience that sort of audience fealty.
BOTTOM LINE Opposite Ally McBeal, this Knots Landing landfill doesn’t suggest an audience holder, despite a strong opener (7th Heaven).

WILL & GRACE
CONCEPT A straight woman (Prey‘s Debra Messing) and a gay guy (Eric McCormack) share an apartment. Lifestyles commingle for laughs.
THE SCOOP Razor-sharp writing, crack timing, and a terrific ensemble cast give this show quality buzz. Says McCormack: ”The relationships between gay men and straight women I know, they have more fun than anybody. Straight guys like me are jealous because of how much fun they have. We can show the audience part of that.” Notes executive producer and cocreator David Kohan (Dream On), ”Look at all the tv shows, and outside of [Seinfeld‘s] Jerry and Elaine, I can’t think of a man and woman who are a couple and who are close and compatible where the inevitable question isn’t ‘Will they or won’t they?’ Here they won’t”
BOTTOM LINE The best thing Ellen hath wrought.

THE BRIAN BENBEN SHOW
CONCEPT High-strung TV anchor demoted to lifestyles reporter (Dream On‘s Brian Benben) copes and plots his way back to the top.
THE SCOOP Exec producer and Drew Carey Show vet Robert Borden says the doofus new anchor (Charles Esten) will be an ongoing nemesis for Benben, á la Kathy Kinney’s Mimi on Drew. One promising plotline: Benben will go to an anger-management class and pack on the pounds while trying to control his temper. ”We’ll put a little weight on him,” says Borden, ”and see how he relates to women with the added girth.”
BOTTOM LINE The key to Benben’s style is his air of desperation. Unfortunately, the whole show seems a little desperate — frantic and overdone. Everything around him should calm down and sharpen up.

L.A. DOCTORS
CONCEPT Four L.A. physicians — Ken Olin, Matt Craven, Sheryl Lee, and Rick Roberts — share a private practice.
THE SCOOP Says exec producer John Lee Hancock, ”It’s a tough time to start a business as a doctor; we’ll examine that.” In the HMO era, it’s even harder to be a patient; as Hancock notes, ”people are trying to figure out what to expect from a doctor. Also, how much is a doctor expected to give?” Describing the story lines, Hancock says, ”We’re not doing brain surgery.” But the slick pilot, with Olin’s oleaginous doc particularly unsympathetic, could use a few more brain cells.
BOTTOM LINE Watching the pilot was akin to sitting in a waiting room with a white-noise machine.

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