In the fall of ’95, Tea Leoni’s sitcom, The Naked Truth, premiered on ABC to strong reviews (for her genial willingness to fall down, Leoni was often compared to Lucille Ball) but only so-so ratings. The show was a logical candidate for cancellation — and for likely overestimation in future TV reference books as being funnier than it really was. The television gods, however, must be serenely convinced that Leoni should be a star as soon as possible, and they will not be thwarted. It is therefore her good luck that her series was picked up by No. 1 network NBC and plopped down in the cushy post-Seinfeld slot (former home to Caroline in the City and Suddenly Susan), where a freshly revamped version of The Naked Truth will now presumably flourish.

In its latest incarnation, The Naked Truth once again features Leoni as Nora Wilde, a photographer-turned-advice columnist for the Comet, a National Enquirer-like tabloid. In the first NBC episode, the Comet was acquired by the father of meat-packing scion Les Polonsky, played by Cheers‘ George Wendt. As the new editor in chief, he shakes up the staff by demoting Camilla Dane (the wittily brittle Holland Taylor) and by taking the tabloid upscale, decreeing that the Comet now print only facts, not rumors. (”Oh, sure — 40 pages with no Elvis sightings, no Bigfoot,” roars Camilla. ”Just rob America of its hope!”)

One flaw in ABC’s earlier version of Truth was that, Nora aside, there wasn’t a sincere, unironic character to be found — everyone was snappish or stupid or silly. Adding Wendt’s Les to the mix helps. So far, Les is Norm without the sodden sarcasm — certainly not as richly detailed a character (Les is just a big teddy bear with principles), but a very likable foil for Nora, Camilla, and the rest of the staff.

Even a sitcom heavyweight like Wendt, however, is kept on a tight leash here: The Naked Truth remains a showcase for Leoni alone. Most often, she gets laughs in a time-honored, old-fashioned way — from the comic tension inherent in the spectacle of a beautiful woman acting all slapsticky. There’s nothing innocent or dim-bulbish about Nora, and Leoni is very much a conspirator in the exploitation of her own allure; print ads for Truth show her wiggling under a velvet sheet, presumably in the buff, with the promo line ”All-New and Naked Too!” But Leoni’s not really a conventional sexpot, either; when she does a wobbly fall in a tight skirt and heels, it’s like that moment in Bambi when the little deer fumbles and skitters across a patch of ice.

At her best, Leoni seems vulnerable and raucous at the same time. The bray in her voice and the relish she takes in making a boorish joke are frequently funnier than the lines she’s delivering. That said, The Naked Truth still needs to find better ways to employ the talents of its star and her supporting cast. The series’ second episode, for example, had a real drag of a subplot in which the two Comet staffers played by Jonathan Penner and Mark Roberts try to fool Les into thinking they’re a gay couple. Should one be sad or relieved that jokes about coming out have become trite sitcom material?

In either case, this episode proved that such jokes aren’t funny anymore, and their leaden coyness squashed the air out of the rest of the show. Obviousness like this doesn’t convince me that The Naked Truth will please viewers who arrive at 9:30 p.m. with their brains all atingle from happy Seinfeld stimulation. The danger is that people may conclude all too quickly that Truth is just a variation on Suddenly Susan: Sexy Girl + Wacky Office Friends.

As Leoni proved in last year’s amusing feature film Flirting With Disaster, she can be as good at verbal humor as she is at physical shtick. The Naked Truth writers ought to be giving her yuks as resilient as her pratfalls.

The Naked Truth
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