- TV Show
In the ’80s, they were three of NBC’s biggest comedy stars: Bill Cosby (The Cosby Show), John Larroquette (Night Court), and Ted Danson (Cheers). Now they’ve entered what can only be called the CBS phase of their careers — not just because they all star on Eye network sitcoms (Cosby, Payne, and Becker, respectively), but also because they play Cranky, Blustery Sourpusses.
Based on the bitter Britcom One Foot in the Grave, Cosby casts the comedian as Hilton Lucas, a Queens retiree who unleashes his tiresome tirades on his wife, Ruthie (Cosby Show alum Phylicia Rashad). For the past three seasons, the cuddly curmudgeon has presided over an increasingly crowded household. In addition to their daughter (colorless In Living Color vet T’Keyah Crystal Keymah) and her boyfriend (the even-more-colorless Darien Sills-Evans), the Lucases make room for a boarder (chip-off-the-old-Cos Doug E. Doug), a neurotic friend (the squandered Madeline Kahn), and a precocious neighbor (Eve’s Bayou‘s endearing Jurnee Smollett).
The titular star seems strangely peripheral, hovering in the background with Ruthie. After working on TV together for more than a decade, Cosby and Rashad emanate a chemistry that’s easygoing but not particularly compelling. In an attempt to capture that old Cosby magic, the comic does occasionally take center stage with rambling anecdotes delivered directly into the camera — or, in one case, pointlessly rendered as a cartoon. Watching Cosby coast through this subpar sitcom, it’s hard not to conclude that, like Hilton, it may be time for him to hang it up.
Still, Cosby has performed respectably in the ratings (at least among CBS’ get-off-my-lawn demographic), which may explain why the network has tried to duplicate its formula with Larroquette and Danson. Like Cosby, Larroquette’s Payne is an adaptation of a British comedy — only in this case, it’s John Cleese’s Fawlty Towers. That’s strike one: You don’t repaint the Sistine Chapel of sitcoms. Strike two is the title, an irresistible setup for pun-happy TV critics (Basil Fawlty’s name has been changed to Royal Payne, which gives you some idea of the general level of witlessness here). The third strike is the casting of Larroquette, who lacks Cleese’s spot-on timing and crazy-legs agility.
For years, Larroquette seems to have taken the four Emmys he won as lecherous Night Court lawyer Dan Fielding as a license to overact, most notably in a pair of guest spots as a homicidal homosexual on The Practice (a role that, in my judgment, unjustly earned him yet another Emmy). So what’s shocking about his performance as the craven innkeeper in Payne is that he’s chosen to underplay it. Maybe he knows he can’t compare to Cleese, but this muted approach sucks the life out of the farce.
Larroquette is matched in ineptitude by JoBeth Williams as his wife. One of the most wooden performers since Pinocchio, Williams seems too intent on making her character blandly likable to achieve the heights of comic grotesquerie attained by her precursor, Prunella Scales. In this sense, she fits perfectly on Payne. Executive producers Judd Pillot and John Peaslee (Coach, Something So Right) have opted for a middlebrow tone that’s all wrong for remaking a show that so perfectly mixed highbrow and lowbrow humor.
Perhaps Payne will get better — Becker certainly has. When the sitcom premiered last year, Danson seemed ill-cast as a politically incorrect Bronx doctor. Yet he’s settled into the role gracefully. The one-joke premise of a misanthropic healer has been fleshed out in episodes like the one that examined Becker’s distant relationship with his dad (Dick Van Dyke, in an inspired bit of stunt casting).
The will-they-or-won’t-they heat between Becker and coffee-shop owner Reggie (Deep Space Nine‘s Terry Farrell) has been wisely turned down. Danson helped cook up this gimmick years ago with Shelley Long on Cheers, but it’s long since gone stale. Becker does have an Achilles heel, however — the terminally lame doctor’s office scenes. Wacky subplots involving Shawnee Smith’s ditzy assistant go limp, and Becker’s banter with patients is too often predictable (to a pregnant woman: ”In a couple of weeks, you’re going to be flat on your back, your legs straight up in the air, screaming like a banshee…. Pretty much what put you in that condition in the first place”).
Although Becker still represents a steep drop-off in quality from its lead-in, Everybody Loves Raymond, its condition has been upgraded to watchable. In other words, it’s no longer a Payne to endure. See, I told you that pun was irresistible…