By Ken Tucker
Updated October 17, 1997 at 04:00 AM EDT

When NBC gathered up four of its femme-centric sitcoms — Suddenly Susan, Fired Up, Caroline in the City, and The Naked Truth — and branded them its Ladies of Monday Night, the network was obviously crossing its Peacock feathers that we’d cotton to the idea of spending an evening with its gals instead of ABC’s footballers or CBS’ motley crew of Cosby, Everybody Loves Raymond, Cybill, and George & Leo. But this gamble doesn’t seem to be playing out in the ratings; after a season-opening victory over CBS, the numbers seem to have dipped. Why? The answer lies in the individual shows.

The fact that Bill Cosby is beating Brooke Shields in their head-to-head competition must be satisfying to the Cos, ’cause if ever a sitcom had Jell-O for brains, it’s Suddenly Susan. And the show’s only gotten mushier this season, since Susan’s boss, Jack (Judd Nelson), has declared his love for her. In an effort to give Shields’ Susan a backbone to support those strapping shoulders, the writers are making her the aloof one in this empty relationship. The result is that Nelson, whose natural expression is hangdog sullenness, is now trying to act hangdog sullenness. To watch this is to sense viewers across America reaching, en masse, for a few extra capsules of Saint-John’s-wort.

My hunch is that when it came time to load up the Ladies of Monday Night schedule, there were some at NBC who probably realized that the logical post-Susan, pre-Caroline candidate would be Jenny, Jenny McCarthy’s searing exploration of capri pants. But then I always imagine that Sharon Lawrence came in, started doing all that theatrical shrieking her character does, tap-danced on a few heads, and Fired Up got the slot. What other reason can there be? In the Fired Up pilot last season, Lawrence gave a crisp, assured performance as an egomaniacal, recently terminated executive. It never seemed to occur to anyone involved that she’d have to portray this fiercely unlikable character week after week — that we were expected to like this squawking harridan.

Yet here we are in season 2 of Fired Up, with Lawrence’s imperious Gwen trying to get laughs out of bullying her partner, Terry, played by the increasingly Judd Nelsonesque hangdog Leah Remini. Inspiration desperation has hit the Fired Up writers pretty early in the season; by the second episode, we’d been reintroduced to the son of bar owner Guy (Jonathan Banks), whose shtick is that he’s a bad, unhappy female impersonator. Excuse me while I wipe the tears of laughter from my eyes and put a small but powerful handgun to my temple.

The two remaining women of Monday are faring slightly better in terms of quality. On Caroline, Lea Thompson is giving a performance that’s a model of modest team playing; if she and frequent episode director James Burrows had better-defined supporting characters and funnier lines, Thompson would be courting comparisons to Mary Tyler Moore. As it is, you tend to be surprised to find yourself smiling so regularly at Caroline‘s mildly wacky take on cartooning and the single life, even if the biggest laugh so far this season is the apparently inadvertent one due to costar Malcolm Gets’ poufed-up hairdo — is it early-period Jerry Lee Lewis, or late-period Fonzie? (And speaking of hair: Have you noticed that Thompson’s current ‘do renders her a ringer for a younger version of Bonnie Raitt?)

Coming down the home stretch to The Naked Truth, I find myself in awe of Téa Leoni’s sheer dogged (but never hangdogged) persistence in trying to turn this hunk o’ junk into a good show. Now entering its third season and third cast shake-up, Truth is benefiting from the addition of former Letterman weirdo Chris Elliott as a new colleague in Leoni’s tabloid-journalism ranks; Elliott’s brand of blissed-out, self-absorbed idiocy works on a show lacking much in the way of interesting character interactions.

If you give all four of these Ladies of Monday a close squint, Leoni’s Nora Wilde and Thompson’s Caroline are the only ones remotely effective as working women. Thompson has the meditative demeanor of a stay-at-home artist nailed, while Leoni cannily — cartoonishly — plays off the way women must sometimes exaggerate their aggressiveness to compete with men in the world of media dirt scooping. But given the opportunity to spend the TV night with all of these women, I confess I’d rather hang out with a couple of the milder men of Monday night — Raymond‘s Ray Romano, and George & Leo‘s Bob Newhart. Suddenly Susan: C- Fired Up: C- Caroline in the City: B- The Naked Truth: C

Caroline in the City

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