September 26, 1997 at 04:00 AM EDT

The two most promising sitcoms of this season center on the radiant power and very different comic styles of their female stars. Veronica’s Closet gives us the Kirstie Alley we’ve been wanting — trash talking and in charge, a strong, mature woman who’s both vulnerable to men’s charms and sick of their lies. Meanwhile, Dharma & Greg anoints Jenna Elfman as TV’s official New Breath of Fresh Air. Risen from the rank ranks of last season’s damp buddy comedy Townies, Elfman does the latest variation on ditsiness with the slit-eyed leer of a very funny flirt.

The premiere episode of Dharma & Greg delivers rather more than you might expect; it has the zing of a ’30s screwball comedy. Elfman is Dharma Finkelstein, raised as what ABC press materials frequently refer to as a ”free spirit.” This means her parents — Savannah’s Mimi Kennedy and a ponytailed Alan Rachins (L.A. Law) — were (and remain) hippies. Dharma herself is a Zen-blissed Gracie Allen, the sort who gives her dog his own pet to keep him company.

Dharma’s whimsical karma leads her to marry Greg Montgomery (Chicago Hope‘s Thomas Gibson), a preppy U.S. attorney. Greg’s the kind of guy who thinks he’s perfectly happy with his conventional, fast-track life until he meets someone who bedazzles and befuddles him. The rest of the show’s season will chronicle the fallout from this impulsive event: Dharma’s countercultural mom and dad are appalled by the establishment lackey she’s hitched herself to, while Greg’s WASP parents (Falcon Crest‘s Susan Sullivan and veteran character actor Mitchell Ryan) are horrified to have Greg marry beneath him. The show is played as farce, with all the actors taking their cues from Elfman’s cartoonish vitality.

In both Dharma and Closet, love is elusive — an emotional shape-shifter that can take unexpected forms. Smart women fall for cads and nerds — for men who wound them or who don’t have any idea what to do with them. That all this is presented in the context of sitcom laughs makes the fondness we feel for Veronica and Dharma that much more resonant. B+

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