By Ken Tucker
Updated May 27, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT
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When a character in Grace Under Fire recently referred to Brett Butler’s Grace Kelly as a ”bitter, divorced pain in the butt,” the studio audience laughed heartily, and I was surprised. We’ve been trained by sitcoms to process anything containing the word ”butt” as a punchline, of course; in this case, however, the patent truth of the description seemed to me to outweigh any possible humor.

What I mean is, I still find it pretty amazing that the rancorous, intelligent, stubborn person Butler has created in this show has proven likable enough to make Grace Under Fire the most popular new series of the 1993-94 season. Because this Grace Kelly-Alabama-born, divorced mother of three, survivor of what she describes as ”a nine-year marriage to a perfect alcoholic who beat the tar out of me”-is, truly, a bitter pain in the butt.

Grace Under Fire is as close to kitchen-sink comedy as TV gets these days- intentionally drab and persistently one-note, it’s The Honeymooners if Alice had had kids and dumped Ralph. (By comparison, Roseanne-with its capacious cast and roiling, varied moods-is grand opera.) Grace works a tedious job at an oil refinery and comes home every night to take care of her glowering son Quentin (Jon Steuer), her daughter Libby (solemn, sweet Kaitlin Cullum), and the baby, Patrick (played by Dylan and Cole Sprouse). Her face has two expressions, grim and disgusted, and most of the jokes are on the level of someone wondering whether ”you can still have sex at (age) 94,” and Grace replying, ”Sure; you just can’t feel it.”

So it’s tempting to ascribe Grace’s popularity to the cushy position it’s had most of the season following ABC’s biggest hit, Home Improvement. But then we need only recall that Jackie Mason’s Chicken Soup occupied similar territory for a short while (following Roseanne) to conclude that a lead-in smash doesn’t make much difference if a show features deeply unsympathetic characters. David Letterman recently asked Butler, ”Is there a secret to the success of your show?” and without pausing a beat, Butler replied, ”Yeah: me.” Her effrontery was perfect-a mixture of joking and pride.

The fact is, Butler is an extremely deft stand-up comic-in nightclubs and on cable TV, she gets her best laughs from ribald lines that contrast her Southern drawl with her silver-tongued delivery of intricately structured jokes. In making the transition to sitcom stardom, she’s still stiff as an actress, and it’s all too obvious that she thinks most of her punchlines would be better if she’d had time to polish them herself.

It is also depressing to see Dave Thomas, once so great on SCTV, walking through Grace as Russell, a shlubby pharmacist. Thomas delivers his mild jokes most often from under frowning brows, as if he really didn’t want to meet the gaze of the camera and admit to us that he’s a regular on this show. When the series debuted, Russell was angling to date Grace, but with no sexual or romantic charge between them, they made an affable but bland duo. As the show has gone on, they’ve settled for being ”just friends” and Russell is now dating Grace’s sister, Faith (Valri Bromfield, in a semi-regular role). The effect, though, has been to neuter his character.

Much more promising is Grace’s budding relationship with a poker-faced petrochemist played by William Fichtner. The only actor on Grace with a pan deader than Butler’s, Fichtner as Ryan is at once handsome and odd-looking, with tense hair and enormous, sad eyes, and the two of them have a fine comic rhythm going, matching each other in dour sarcasm. Maybe if they find some appropriately cynical version of happiness together, Grace Under Fire will start setting off more sparks than it does now. B-

Grace Under Fire

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