Keeping a watch on TV

By Bruce Fretts
Updated September 04, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

Becker

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Sitcoms crank up the grouch factor with an onslaught of Archie Bunker wannabes.

People are fed up with political correctness — bring on the bigots. Not since the heyday of All in the Family have so many small-minded characters populated the small screen. This season, we’ll see no less than three new comedic characters with Archie Bunker mentalities. Whether any of them proves as complicated and long-lived as Carroll O’Connor’s timeless blowhard remains an open question.

Xenophobes is George Dzundza in NBC’s new Thursday sitcom Jesse. Like Bunker, he dotes on his blond daughter (Sally Struthers in Family, Christina Applegate in Jesse) and disapproves of her male companion (Rob Reiner’s liberal Meathead in Family, Bruno Campos’ Chilean neighbor in Jesse). Like O’Connor did in the latter-day Archie Bunker’s Place, he owns a working-class bar in New York (Buffalo replaces Queens here).

At his most Bunkerish, Dzundza’s character makes staggeringly inappropriate statements. ”Did you know William Shatner’s Jewish?” he asks in Jesse‘s pilot. ”I just never pictured those people in space.” Creator Ira Ungerleider, an avowed Family fan, says he doesn’t want Dzundza to come off as a straight-out bigot: ”It’s an Archie Bunker situation, where he’s so clueless that you sorta forgive him for it. It’s more that he’s old-fashioned and misinformed. We don’t want to get to a place where he just hates people who are different. That’s offensive without having any clever spin on it.”

Which is a perfect description of Living in Captivity, Fox’s new Friday sitcom featuring the charmless Carmine Santucci (Lenny Venito). An Italian-American stereotype, Santucci is a gold-chain-sporting buffoon who freaks when an African-American couple (Dondre Whitfield and Kira Arne) moves into his suburb. ”Hear that?” he asks his blond-bimbo wife (Mia Cottet) in Captivity‘s pilot. ”That’s the sound of our property values dropping 20 percent.”

It gets worse: He forbids his wife to work, shows off his black lawn jockey, and accuses his new black neighbors of stealing his barbecue. Maybe because of their liberal Murphy Brown credentials, exec producers Diane English and Joel Shukovsky think they can pass off such reactionary gags as social commentary. In fact, they’ve pulled off a nearly impossible feat: making a sitcom that could insult even the limited intelligence of bigots.

At least Captivity provokes a strong — albeit negative — reaction. Ted Danson’s mid-season CBS sitcom, Becker, casts the Cheers alum as an ”outrageous” character who’s constantly launching into Bunkeresque tirades. Yet his targets are so harmless that the humor lacks any teeth. In the pilot, penned by ex-Wings man Dave Hackel, Becker rants about ”idiotic TV talk shows,” ”parasitic car salesmen,” and ”white trash.” Who’d argue with that?

Oh, and here’s the punchline: He’s a doctor! The guy who’s supposed to heal sick people is actually a misanthrope — get it? Saying things like ”Bite me,” calling women ”chicks,” and — gasp — smoking are supposed to make him prickly, but the problem is Danson’s too smooth to be convincing. Even unshaven and wearing a dirty shirt he looks like he just stepped out of GQ.

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