''Dharma & Greg,'' ''The Tony Danza Show,'' and ''Spin City'' are some of the shows we examine

CBS, 8:30-9 PM

One day this summer, while shooting the upcoming Disney comedy Krippendorf’s Tribe, Jenna Elfman of Dharma & Greg found herself sitting in the makeup trailer next to Murphy Brown‘s Lily Tomlin. ”She’s getting her hair done and I’m getting my makeup done, and I’m going on about how our show shouldn’t have much competition this fall,” Elfman recalls. ”And she says, ‘We’re on Wednesday at 8:30 too.’ So I’m like, ‘Lily, if we kick your ass in the ratings, will you still like me?’ And she just rolled her eyes toward me and gave me a very slow, sly smile.”

Who can blame the kid for showing a little rookie bravado? ABC’s uptight boy-meets-hang-loose girl series is already being trumpeted as the freshest sitcom of the fall — not to mention the perfect breakout vehicle for the 25-year-old Elfman (”What exactly am I breaking out of?” she asks). ”Everyone seems extremely confident in us,” cautiously notes the other half of the equation, ex-Chicago Hope hunk Thomas Gibson, 35. ”A couple of advertisers came up to us at the network presentations and said, ‘I can’t wait to spend our budget on your show.”’

Dharma domination would be a welcome (and necessary) blessing for the No. 3 net, which seeks to reverse tumbling fortunes. ”This show has instant hit potential,” gushes (admittedly biased) ABC VP of marketing Alan Cohen.

Instant hit? That’d be a doubly impressive feat, considering that prime-time audiences haven’t cozied up to a romantic comedy since 1992’s Mad About You. (RIP If Not for You, It Had to Be You, Almost Perfect, Hudson Street…) In this slicker, twentysomething take on the genre, Elfman plays chirpy tree hugger Dharma, who bumps into buttoned-up Ivy-schooled lawyer Greg (Gibson); they see fireworks, yada yada yada, and they’re hitched by the end of the first date. Conflicts and yuks arise as the couple get to know each other and their polar-opposite parents, who include Falcon Crest‘s Susan Sullivan as Greg’s pass-the-beluga mom and L.A. Law’s Alan Rachins as Dharma‘s screw-the-Establishment dad. ”Falling in love was the easy part,” notes Dharma exec producer Chuck Lorre. ”Staying in love is the series.”

Hollywood execs have already fallen hard for the 5’10” Elfman, who swiped scenes last season as sex-happy Shannon on Molly Ringwald’s nixed ABC sitcom, Townies. ”Jenna is the only person I’ve ever seen who could combine height and cuteness,” notes ABC VP of comedy series Carolyn Ginsburg. Elfman immediately latched on to Dharma and joined in the search for would-be suitors. ”A lot of the guys were handsome and potentially charming,” she recalls. ”But they would walk in and apologize for it in a weird, kiss-assy way. The moment I saw Thomas, I knew. It was like KSHHHHHHHH! Something smacked me across the face.” (”I certainly didn’t mean to slap her,” deadpans Gibson. ”I was just standing there.”)

And the rest, as they say, is chemistry. Like the many deep-sixed romantic comedies before it, Dharma must live or die on that ineffable attraction. If this particular marriage fails, though, it definitely won’t be for lack of effort. ”You want to use everything you’ve got, not just one part,” notes Elfman. ”To survive, you have to be willing to play the fool. And I’m very willing. I don’t care, I’ll sing loudly, I’ll do anything!” Lily Tomlin, consider yourself warned.

Dharma & Greg
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