Shawna Malcom
September 11, 1998 AT 12:00 PM EDT

THE HUGHLEYS

So, how exactly did edgy Chris Rock wind up an executive producer of a family-hour sitcom? ”D.L. Hughley (star, cocreator, and producer of ABC’s The Hughleys) wanted to do a show,” says Rock, who shares a manager with the stand-up. ”I was a big fan of his, so I just kind of volunteered to put my name on it if it would help.”

And did it? ”It didn’t hurt,” admits Hughley (pronounced Hyoog-ly). ”Chris was like my American Express card — he opened a lot of doors.”

If only assuaging pesky critics were that easy. The show — which focuses on a lone middle-class black family in a white suburb (one of two comedies plumbing that theme this fall) — found itself the subject of a mini-controversy during the TV industry’s recent press tour. At issue: Is Hughleys’ race-based humor stereotypical (particularly a line in the pilot that implies blacks aren’t prompt bill payers)? Hughley quickly dismisses such rumblings. ”I’m not trying to be a spokesperson for anybody,” he says. ”I’m just telling you about my experiences. You could read from the Bible and someone would take offense.”

Surprisingly, Rock — no slouch at sharp-tongued black humor himself — isn’t entirely comfortable with certain jokes yet remains supportive. ”Saying that [blacks don’t pay their bills on time] is a stereotype. But it’s D.L.’s show, and I’m behind whatever he wants to do.” And, as Hughley points out, following Home Improvement — one of ABC’s cushiest slots — does place it smack-dab in the middle of the you-know-what hour. ”People can try to find ways to put race into it,” Hughley says. ”But at heart, it’s a show about family.”

Might we see this family getting a well-timed (i.e., sweeps) visit from its high-profile producer? ”It’s been brought up,” hedges Rock. ”Let’s say we’re not ruling it out.” Now that would be a lethal weapon.

BOTTOM LINE A terrifically likable cast (including Elise Neal as Hughley’s wife, and Eric Allan Kramer and Marietta DePrima as their neighbors) helps The Hughleys transcend the more self-conscious gags that deal in stereotypes.

COSTELLO

CONCEPT Tough-talking Boston barmaid (stand-up comic Sue Costello) cracks wise with down-to-earth truths. Imagine Cheers‘ Carla with her own show.

THE SCOOP If the working-class premise sounds like last season’s ABC flop Townies — well, Costello was offered the lead in that series (Molly Ringwald’s part). But, she says, ”I wasn’t ready at the time to do it…. [This show] is more rough, more edgy.”

BOTTOM LINE Nice spot (after King of the Hill), but Costello’s persona is as abrasive as Hank Hill’s sanding machine. )

BRIMSTONE

CONCEPT New York City cop (thirtysomething‘s Peter Horton) kills the man who raped his wife, then gets killed himself and is shipped off to hell. The devil (who, in the pilot, was played by John Glover) gives Horton a chance to redeem himself, sending him back to Earth to recapture 113 sinners who’ve escaped from hell.

THE SCOOP ”I thought if I was going to go back to television, it had to be different than the usual lawyer/doctor thing,” says Horton. ”We’ve come up with some cool story ideas: Do dead people who come back from hell get hungry? Can you get colds? Can you have sex? You can have sex and [being dead is] built-in birth control.” For the record, Horton also said without apparent irony, ”It’s a hell of a lot of work.”

BOTTOM LINE If you dig the concept, you’ll dig this broodily shot horror show. From here, it looks like holy hokey hooey.

MERCY POINT

CONCEPT ER in outer space: Let’s get an IV in this martian — stat!

THE SCOOP Set in a Deep Space Medical Facility staffed by doctors and Mednauts (otherwise known as EMTs), Mercy Point is headed up by Joe Morton — who, appropriately enough, made his feature-film mark in 1984’s The Brother From Another Planet. His character here ”is the primary alien physiologist…he’s just so excited about the discoveries he can make.” Morton says he’s proud to be in a UPN show with an ”African American as the lead in a drama, as opposed to a sitcom, with a completely diversified cast, including aliens.”

BOTTOM LINE Facing competition like Spin City, Just Shoot Me, and The WB’s Felicity, this thing’ll warp into a ratings black hole. What it does have is the makings of a sci-fi camp cult classic, with dialogue like “”his is not some low-orbit HMO” and ”Kiss my outer rim!”

FELICITY

CONCEPT Small-town girl with really great hair goes to big-city college.

THE SCOOP Follically blessed Keri Russell is the New York City-bound Felicity, who, says executive producer J.J. Abrams, ”is at a point in her life where she could do anything — she could be a doctor, she could be an astronaut, she could be a lawyer. She’s incredibly naive and optimistic, and New York City is the perfect obstacle course [for her].”

BOTTOM LINE In addition to being the most talked-about show of the season, it is also the year’s most sensitively written new young-adult drama; the question is, will it hold WB audiences who’ve just been whooping it up with the in-your-face Buffy the Vampire Slayer?

SPORTS NIGHT

CONCEPT Jock sportscasters (Josh Charles and Peter Krause) horse around while hosting a cable sports show.

THE SCOOP Executive-produced by feature-film writer Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men, The American President), this comedy draws an obvious comparison to an ESPN show. ”SportsCenter and ESPN are frequently referred to on our show: We’re [supposed to be] competitors,” says Sorkin. ”It’s made clear that SportsCenter is in first place, and we are in second, [that] they are the guys who always manage to do it right and we don’t.”

BOTTOM LINE The pilot does a good job of capturing the frenetic pace of live sports-TV broadcasts, but can the show avoid the abrupt, boring soul-searching that flattens the pilot’s final scenes?

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