By Ken Tucker
Updated August 27, 1993 at 04:00 AM EDT

John Larroquette recently said that he doesn’t want the character he portrays in The John Larroquette Show to be anything like the one that made him famous — the sleazeball prosecuting attorney Dan Fielding in Night Court (1984-92). This makes me Larroquette’s ideal audience, since I thought Night Court was nine seasons of noisy annoyance. In fact, I always found Larroquette a lot funnier on talk shows, where he seemed sarcastic and intelligent in a way his vehicle to fame and syndication royalties never permitted him.

In The John Larroquette Show, the weaselly aspect of the actor’s comic manner has been removed. His new character, John Hemingway, is an altogether more likable guy, the newly hired night manager for a run-down bus terminal in St. Louis. Hemingway is instantly sympathetic, as well: In the opening seconds of the premiere, we learn that he’s an alcoholic just five days sober, a fresh recruit in the ranks of Alcoholics Anonymous.

The running gag in the first episode is that everyone wants to buy Hemingway a drink; when he strolls into the bus station’s dark, inviting bar, he eyes the bottles of liquor on the shelves and murmurs, ”Hello, boys.” There’s a gratifying realism and irreverence in the way the show deals with Hemingway’s alcohol problem; you aren’t hammered with the message that excessive drinking is bad — instead, the subject remains focused on Hemingway’s personal temptation and resistance.

As Hemingway arrives for his first night of work, we also meet the bus station’s regulars. Liz Torres (Phyllis) is Mahalia, who sells bus tickets, and Daryl ”Chill” Mitchell (Here and Now) is Dexter, who runs the terminal’s snack bar. So far, the treatment of Torres’ character, a Hispanic, succumbs to ethnic stereotypes (there are jokes involving her accent, and one about how she’d like to ”do” actor Andy Garcia), while Mitchell’s Dexter transcends them. Dexter is angry that he wasn’t hired for Hemingway’s job, and believes the reason was racial; rather than allowing this conflict to dissipate into a genial punch line, writer-creator Don Reo (Blossom) pushes it into a stinging dialogue between Dexter and Hemingway that carries some dramatic weight.

Gigi Rice does a fine job of making her character, a prostitute named Carly, more than a whore with a heart of gold — a hooker with a mind like a steel trap is more like it, as when she answers a potential customer who asks what it would take ”for you to go out with me for free.” ”A rip in the fabric of time,” murmurs Carly, and Rice delivers the line with cutting assurance. And Doris Roberts, who seems to have been in every sitcom made in the past 20 years and has been solid in every one of them — including her current one, CBS’ The Boys — turns up here. She guest-stars as a cranky woman waiting for her husband to arrive on a delayed bus, whacking Larroquette so hard with her pocketbook that I think the show might qualify for a violence advisory. (Note to Sen. Paul Simon: I’m kidding.)

It should also be noted that Larroquette has the most impressive-looking set of any show on the air. As designed by Ed La Porta, this bus station is a moody marvel of dark brown wood, with vaulted arches and the sort of stolid grandeur that characterized many public buildings in the ’30s. La Porta’s set is one of Larroquette‘s best supporting characters, conveying a melancholy that gives the show’s bright jokes a glow of poignance. If The John Larroquette Show lives up to its set — and it shows signs that it might — it’ll be one of the best new series of the season. B+