By Ken Tucker
September 11, 1992 at 04:00 AM EDT

Among the new shows premiering this week are two romantic comedies that, except for the high quality of their writing and acting, couldn’t be more different from each other. Hearts Afire arrives star-studded and hype-inflated. It’s the eagerly awaited new show from Designing Women and Evening Shade creator Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and it features highly familiar TV faces—John Ritter and Night Court‘s Markie Post—as its anxiously amorous leads.

One of the things that has always distinguished Bloodworth-Thomason’s sitcom writing is that her characters carry the baggage of their past lives into a series. Whether it’s Wood Newtown’s dented career as a former pro-footballer on Shade or Suzanne Sugarbaker’s vanished youth as a slim beauty queen on Bloodworth-Thomason’s creations are always consumed with memories of better times and haunted by the suspicion that life will never get better than it already was.

So it is with Post‘s Georgie Anne Lahti in Hearts Afire, once a globe-trotting investigative journalist, now a broke, scandal-ridden (she had an affair with Fidel Castro) chain-smoker, bitterly grateful for her new job: press secretary to an elderly Southern senator (Punky Brewster’s George Gaynes). Ritter plays John Hartman, the senator’s top staffer, a frazzled father of two whose wife has recently left him for her (female) therapist.

The tone of Hearts Afire is trendy: attractive people in mid-life crises, with nicotine and lesbianism serving as aren’t-we-grown-up? character traits to signal the show’s sophistication. What’s most interesting about Hearts Afire‘s debut is that right now, John and Georgie Anne’s hearts aren’t quite afire. They’re sizing each other up, and they like what they see (someone both attractive and screwed up); they climb into John’s bathtub together in the first episode, but that’s just pent-up horniness.

And while it’s nice to see pent-up horniness relieved in a sitcom, Hearts Afire will take a few more weeks to prove its passion. Ritter and Post are skilled, likable actors, but neither of them radiates heat. What I liked best about the premiere, in fact, had nothing to do with romance: It was the opening scenes between John and his young children, Ben (Justin Burnette) and Elliot (Clark Duke)—funny, affectionate moments that carry the ring of complicated truth: family values redeemed.

Hearts Afire, with its star power and lead-in to the Murphy Brown time period, is a hit in the making. By contrast, there’s Flying Blind, a charming sleeper whose biggest name is thirtysomething’s Corey Parker. Flying Blind‘s pilot episode is so well written, so zippily sexy, that it immediately stands out among Fox’s usual run of self-consciously crude comedies.

Parker here plays Neil Barash, fresh out of college and out of a job. His father (Michael Tucci from It’s Garry Shandling’s Show) helps Neil get a position where dad works—in marketing for a New York food company. The premiere is snappily directed by Cheers‘ James Burrows, and executive producer-writer Richard Rosenstock has surrounded Neil with eccentric bohemian friends, amusingly ambitious office workers, and the season’s best love interest: Alicia (Tea Leoni), whose breathy beauty doesn’t blind Neil to the fact that she’s awfully impetuous, if not downright kooky.

The running gag about Alicia is that she sleeps with nearly every man she meets; when Neil asks her roommate, ”Is that her bedroom?” the dour Megan (Clea Lewis) replies, ”What isn’t?” But Alicia proves to be neither the object of endless slut jokes or an empty invitation to ogle.

Few actors, female or male, know how to use their good looks for comedic purposes. Leoni does; as Alicia, she’s a woman in control of her life, believing that one way to prove it is to be ruled by whim—to fall in love with an array of men and not care what anyone thinks. ”Look, Neil,” says Alicia at one point, ”I really want you, but with me it’s gotta be like that”—she snaps her fingers-”and intense, or else you’re just another guy who’ll eventually die with my name on his…” and then she kisses him and walks away. ”On my what?!” squeals Neil, running after her.

I laughed harder at the first episode of Flying Blind than I did at Hearts Afire, even as I fear that Flying‘s characters won’t ever be as fully fleshed out as Hearts‘ seem well on their way to becoming; I hope I’m proven wrong in this. But even if it soon crashes and burns, this pilot for Flying Blind is easily one of the best debut shows of the year.
Hearts Afire: B+
Flying Blind: B+