See how ''Frasier,'' ''Friends,'' ''Jesse,'' and ''Veronica's Closet'' measure up

Ken Tucker reviews NBC’s Thursday night lineup

There are some weeks when the funniest thing NBC broadcasts on Thursday night is Noah Wyle’s beard. (I offer the night’s new slogan: Must Shave TV.) Certainly, both Christina Applegate’s new series, Jesse, and the second season of Kirstie Alley’s Veronica’s Closet are providing about as many laughs as a Slobodan Milosevic roast. And so far the network’s decision to replace Seinfeld with Frasier hasn’t paid off either. Viewership in the 9 p.m. time period is down, and, sorry to say, the quality of the Kelsey Grammer sitcom is rather off. Which leaves Friends the night’s big quality winner, and not just by default; now in its fifth season, this series has survived its 15 media minutes as The Hot New Show to become a dependably clever, sexy, sometimes even touching sitcom. Why, I’m misting up just thinking about Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) having to give up all three of those triplets she recently brought to term for her infertile sister-in-law — as Phoebe said, she only wanted to keep one of the little cuties.

Friends has always gotten its richest comedy from the intricate interrelationships of the six pals. The show hasn’t run out of character material because, over the years, each friend has had to define and redefine his or her relationship with every other friend.

Such a mixed-nuts approach has yielded the new season’s best subplot: Monica and Chandler’s secret courtship. The marriage of Ross (David Schwimmer) to Helen Baxendale’s Emily — despite his lingering feelings for Rachel — was ultimately less successful (the writers failed to come up with much for Baxendale to do except look pained). But it did provide Aniston with a chance to prove yet again that she’s a crack comedian; her slapstick angst in the immediate postnuptial episodes was prime shtick.

Seeing how varied and dexterous the women on Friends are makes you feel all the sorrier for Applegate, stuck being a plucky but disappointingly hapless single mother on Jesse. Even though the new show is from Friends exec producers Kevin S. Bright, Marta Kauffman, and David Crane, it has none of the latter show’s zip or focus. And, except for Bruno Campos’ just-dandy Diego (our heroine’s next-door-neighbor love interest), Jesse is the worst-cast high-visibility show this season. George Dzundza, as Jesse’s dad, seems uncomfortable spouting stale Archie Bunkerisms (Dzundza sometimes winces speaking his lines), and the two actors playing Jesse’s brothers — cloddish Darren (David DeLuise) and silent Junior (John Lehr) — don’t look related either to each other or to Jesse; they are united solely in their boorishness.

Boorish plus boring, Veronica’s Closet hasn’t benefited from the addition of Ron Silver to the cast as the new owner of Veronica’s lingerie company. Alley’s Ronnie and Silver’s Alec are each so self-absorbed and foul-tempered, they dampen the romantic sparks that are supposed to fly. So far this season, the one lively character in the show, Kathy Najimy’s Olive, has been pushed to the background only so we can hear more lame sex-hound jokes from Dan Cortese’s Perry and wallow in the utterly exhausted is-he-gay? story line that Wallace Langham must slog through as Josh. At this point, Closet seems beyond creative redemption, which is a pity, given Alley’s and Langham’s comic talents.

By contrast, Frasier can be a beautifully written and acted farce. Yet, in its sixth season, the show is more often sliding into repetition. Getting Grammer’s Frasier fired at the end of last season at first seemed smart (the radio station scenes were always the weakest aspect of the series). Frasier moping around his apartment, however, has cast a claustrophobic pall over the show. I know, I know, there’s no pleasing me, but it’s a complaint I’m hearing from other viewers, too.

All Frasier needs to pull out of this tailspin is a small miracle: a new job with more appealingly nutty characters than Dan Butler’s tedious Bulldog, and some fresh takes on life at home. (The unrequited-love bit between David Hyde Pierce’s Niles and Jane Leeves’ Daphne, once so rich and ribald, has become threadbare and thilly — er, silly.) Frasier would do well to follow Friends‘ lead and ruthlessly shake up the relationships between the regulars. It’s odd and ironic that the show that once seemed so ephemeral — so much less sophisticated than Frasier — is now the one that’s more emotionally engaging and substantially funnier. Friends: A- Jesse: C Frasier: B+ Veronica’s Closet: D-

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