With 'Dharma and Greg', ABC has a hit and America a loopy sweetheart

Jenna Elfman is lounging in a lawn chair, quietly soaking up the mellow darkness outside stage 21 at Twentieth Century Fox studios, having slipped away from the filming of her ABC sitcom Dharma & Greg. Suddenly, her reverie is broken by an elderly woman who approaches Elfman, then cups the actress’ startled face in her hands.

”Tank you … tank you,” the stranger rasps in broken English. ”Your show bring so much joy to me … so much joy … [cheek pinch] … such a vonderful child … [forehead kiss] … so sveet … [chin caress] … alvays tink of me.”

Overwhelmed by the shower of affection, Elfman attempts to smile, only to choke up instead. And then the woman is gone, leaving the actress awash in tears.

”Oh, my God,” she mumbles, wiping her eyes as an assistant claims her to shoot the next scene, ”I just totally wrecked my makeup because that was, like, the most beautiful thing in the world ever.”

Deepak Chopra couldn’t have orchestrated a more blissful encounter. It’s enough to make you sick — were it not for Elfman, a motormouthed ball of spunk who could melt even Lou Grant’s heart. Love — big goopy handfuls of it — fuels the actress and her sitcom, which somehow manages to narrowly avert cloying cuteness, thanks to Elfman’s unaffected and seemingly boundless enthusiasm. Not since Paul and Jamie shared their first kvetch on Mad About You has a romantic comedy struck such a cleverly cornball chord: It’s currently TV’s No. 23-ranked series and — along with Fox’s Ally McBeal — the only new show this season to shine by virtue of content rather than time slot. Furthermore, it builds on its Spin City lead-in and wins virtually every demographic, including those perennially jaded 18- to 34-year-olds. ”There were already tons of shows about overanalytical, miserable women,” notes Dharma exec producer Dottie Dartland. ”It’s like, God, how great it’d be to see a character who isn’t neurotic, insecure, and in a bad relationship.”

Meet Dharma Finkelstein, late-’90s groovy granola chick. It’s karmic destiny when the perky do-gooder (Elfman) bumps into seriously upper-crust lawyer Greg (Chicago Hope‘s Thomas Gibson), and the two wind up getting hitched on their first date. Toss this yin-yangy, Bridget Loves Bernie-esque couple and their worlds-apart parents into a snappy script by hit-machine producer Chuck Lorre (creator of Cybill and Grace Under Fire), and you’ve got the formula for a loopy heart-warmer. (How loopy? Dharma has two dogs, Stinky and Nunzio. Nunzio was Stinky’s bar mitzvah present.) ”If we’re going to be tagged as a corny series, so be it,” says Lorre. ”But I prefer … hopeful.”

Pity Elfman’s costar, Gibson, for most of that hope — and the media love-in — centers on the 26-year-old actress. Enchanted critics tend to prattle on about her ”ditsy, armor-piercing charm” and ”sensual looks,” while almost ignoring her hunky colleague. ”There’s no competition here,” contends Gibson. ”It’s great for the show, period. I’ll just let her do all the work.”

Dharma & Greg
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