Two sides of ''Caroline in the City'' -- Is Lea Thompson's show a miracle or a dud?

Two sides of ”Caroline in the City”

Last season, it became fashionable to bash Caroline in the City as a mere time-slot hit. People watched it, critics said, only because it aired between Seinfeld and ER. Last summer, a funny thing happened: NBC moved Caroline to a riskier spot on Tuesdays, and the show didn’t just survive — it thrived, often building on its Frasier lead-in. This fall, Caroline has held its own against ABC’s highly hyped Spin City. Turns out people really do like Caroline.

I’m one of those people, and I’m not afraid to admit it. I’ll concede that Caroline‘s writing isn’t stellar; after all, the sitcom was created by Fred Barron and Marco Pennette, and these men were once responsible for Dave’s World. But the show’s ensemble cast is so winning, and the pacing so brisk (especially in the episodes directed by James Burrows), that it’s able to wring big laughs from its sometimes-predictable punchlines.

As cartoonist Caroline Duffy, Lea Thompson leads the cast, and her sunny personality radiates through the show. Aside from her sharp turn as Michael J. Fox’s mom in the first Back to the Future movie, Thompson hasn’t had too many opportunities to display her comedic talents on the big screen. Yet on the small screen, she finally seems to have found her groove. She’s endearing and intelligent — just the kind of person you want to invite into your home every week.

The rest of the ensemble melds perfectly with Thompson. Caroline’s acidic assistant, Richard (Malcolm Gets), has become the show’s breakout character, and with good reason: Gets delivers his zingers with caustic glee. Equally excellent are Amy Pietz as Caroline’s libidinous neighbor, Annie, a dancer in Cats (a pop-culture absurdity that Caroline has mined with great comic success); Eric Lutes as Caroline’s himbo ex-beau, Del (his true doofus nature didn’t come through until after their breakup); and Andy Lauer as Del’s rollerblading messenger boy, Charlie (Lauer’s slacker intonations can render even the most throwaway lines hilarious).

And while most sitcoms use guest stars only as cheap ratings stunts, Caroline often builds entire episodes around them, without overshadowing the series’ regulars. The recent show with Frasier‘s David Hyde Pierce is a prime example. As a Cats-obsessed IRS agent auditing Annie, Pierce got to show off a less repressed side than he does as the stuffy Niles Crane. At the same time, supporting player Pietz got to step into the spotlight for the entire half hour.

It might not be as revolutionary as Seinfeld or as hip as Friends, but Caroline is one thing neither of those shows has been lately: consistently entertaining. And you can’t ask for too much more from a sitcom. B+
Bruce Fretts

I’ll give Caroline in the City its due: Its title character is appealing, and the show doesn’t stink on the level of, say, The Single Guy. It’s more that Caroline is just so hollow, so drearily predictable. Like the comic strip that Lea Thompson’s artist-writer Caroline Duffy slaves over week after week, Caroline has always been promising on paper. Thompson’s career switch from mostly feature-film actress to sitcom star was smooth, and she’s grown only more relaxed and restrained in the show’s second season. It’s sometimes even fun to see Caroline hunched over her drawing board, scribbling and sketching her syndicated strip; unlike most sitcoms built around work, this one actually shows its protagonist laboring.

That said, I can’t believe how tedious Caroline can be. Once you get past Thompson, this show is weighed down by clashing story lines and supporting characters whose personalities and motivations shift aimlessly. When Caroline debuted, the plucky cartoonist was venturing a relationship with Del (Lutes), a mystifying attraction given that Del never seemed much more than an arrogant prig. (A tall, handsome, impossibly wavy-haired prig, but still…) In its opening weeks, Caroline’s weakest second banana was her overly friendly neighbor, Annie (Pietz). Gee, how original — a TV female who’s supposed to make us laugh because she sleeps around. The strongest second banana was Richard (Gets), the inker for Caroline’s comic. It’s difficult to imagine that the writers didn’t realize Richard was just as stuffy and prickly as Del — that they’d duplicated one annoying character to create another.

At least Richard, as a would-be fine artist reduced to working for Caroline to pay the rent, had a bitterness that gave his feeble jokes some tang. But after the first round of James Burrows-directed episodes, the show quickly settled into blandness. To shake things up, the writers had Caroline and Del almost marry and then break up, while awakening in Richard an attraction to Caroline that seemed totally out of character, if not downright fishy.

The current season has so far been no improvement. A new boyfriend has popped up (Mark Feuerstein), so now there are three dull, whiny guys for Caroline to play with. And the recent installment guest-starring David Hyde Pierce as a theater-loving IRS agent only underscored this show’s problems. Pierce’s combination of whiplash line readings and deft physical comedy was gleefully awesome, and reminded viewers, Hey, that Frasier — now, there’s a real sitcom.

If I were Caroline, I’d move to another city. D+
Ken Tucker

Caroline in the City
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