May 24, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

Drew and his goofball buddies spent the season finale of The Drew Carey Show trying to launch their own new caffeine-laced microbrew, which they dubbed Buzz Beer (slogan: ”Stay up and get drunk all over again”). As is true of everything else they do in their dank little Cleveland lives, Carey and company screwed it up but had a good time doing it anyway.

The most difficult thing for a sitcom to achieve these days is a distinctive tone — a unique attitude and rhythm in the jokes — and over the course of its first season, The Drew Carey Show has managed to do just that. It helps, certainly, that Carey himself is such a striking specimen. He’s shaped pretty much like a snowman, with shy slitted eyes almost hidden behind thick glasses. And he talks very quickly; when he was a stand-up comic plying his trade on talk shows, Carey delivered his punchlines so fast, he frequently had to wait a few seconds for the audience to catch up.

When Carey and cocreator-executive producer Bruce Helford launched The Drew Carey Show last fall, it bucked the Friends-clone trend by — well, most obviously by featuring Carey, whose linebacker bulk is the antithesis of Friends‘ model-thin physical type. Carey’s show also differs in its depiction of what it means to work for a living. No days spent lounging around an idyllic coffee bar for our Drew; he slaves away at a big Cleveland department store and spends his spare time downing pitchers of suds in a dowdy bar.

Where the increasingly exhausted but still brilliant Roseanne brandishes her working-class persona like a club (in her thumping obviousness resides her power), Carey’s use of lower-middle-class animus is more subtle. His character wears a white shirt and tie and has the title of assistant director of personnel, but Drew certainly isn’t a middle-class, middle-management type. He’s a displaced worker, stuck behind a desk only because there’s no better-paying assembly-line job left in Cleveland.

As the first season progressed, Drew acquired a steady girlfriend (the throaty-laughed Katy Selverstone) and an office nemesis whose role has increased substantially: the overly mascaraed Mimi (Kathy Kinney), secretary to Drew’s boss. With her iridescent, mismatched clothes and unfortunate command of makeup, Mimi is a walking horror show. But she also has her dignity: She seems to hate Drew just because he exists, and the feeling is mutual. (As Drew remarked during the season ender, ”We’re gonna go through life locked in a death grip, like Popeye and Bluto.”) I think one reason viewers really responded to Mimi is that, as exaggerated as her appearance may be, her character — a snide stickler for office rules — is a common annoyance for many people who work in a corporate setting.

Carey himself is such a guy’s guy that it’s been a pleasant surprise to see the interest his show takes in its non-stereotypical female characters. In addition to allowing Mimi to be her own self-actualized creep, The Drew Carey Show offers a model of just-pals, male-female friendship in Drew’s relationship with Christa Miller’s marvelous Kate. Kate is part of Drew’s trio of best buddies, the other two being the interchangeable dumbbells Oswald (Diedrich Bader) and Lewis (Ryan Stiles).

Attempting to boost the show’s viewership, Carey has periodically enlisted guest stars like Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis. But they’ve just distracted from the real pleasures of the show, which certainly deserves renewal. I even offer a plot idea for next season: Drew goes farther into his neighborhood and visits the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where he’s mistaken for a bulked-out Buddy Holly come to life. B+

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