"Newsradio" debuted on Tuesday. So did "Pride and Joy." Neither of them could touch that short-lived walking sitcom which also premiered that day -- "Kato!"
We might as well face up to the truth -- the kid is a natural. Brian "Kato" Kaelin is a sitcom waiting to happen. It's a freak but weirdly benevolent accident of fate that put him in the lap of the biggest celebrity murder trial of modern times (and, of course, the malevolent and stubborn barroom hypothesis that he's somehow implicated in the crime).
With his long, unruly hair, shambling walk and doofus surfer's grin, Kato was born to inspire giggles of impropriety. There he was with Marcia Clark bearing down on him to tell us why -- why? -- he took O. J.'s guest house on North Rockingham.
Did he think O. J. could help his career? Was it somehow career-related? Was it a way for Kato to get a showbiz career established? (Ms. Clark, as well as everyone else in the trial, has a positive genius for saying the same thing over and over again in a few hundred different ways.)
Kato paused 5 seconds. Well, he offered helpfully, we weren't going after the same parts.
It brought down the house which, considering it was a court of law in a murder trial, isn't always such a great idea.
The time-honored phrase for guys like Kaelin is wise guy -- not wiseguy (one word) which denotes guys with broken noses, sandpaper voices and a penchant for feeding their enemies to the squid but wise guy (two words) to denote the sort of fellow who looks at every distressing life moment as an opportunity for a clever riposte or a ploy to amuse the bleachers. In the constricted tea-party world that psychiatry has given us, we call such behavior "inappropriate" (there is no other word which quite conveys the full degree to which modern psychiatry resembles teaching a third grade class). In most cases, it's worse than that. "Obnoxious" covers it nicely.
Not in Kato Kaelin's case, though. Assuming that he is as innocent as he seems and gets out of the case unscathed by the law and with his unreal, skyrocketing celebrity intact, someone is bound to hire him for a sitcom. The kid is a sitcom -- a sweet-natured, clueless but funny houseguest who's involved with people so far over his head they practically have to stoop to pat his unruly hair.
Until some bold network takes a flyer on "Kato!" (I see Romy Waltall and A. Martinez as his co-stars. Where is Fox when you really need them?), we'll have to make do with the usual boring, repetitive TV stuff like:
"Pride and Joy" (9:30 p.m. Tuesday, Channel 2) -- Two couples have newborns -- a nicely gooey Yuppie couple and another with a husband out of work and a computer-whiz teen-age kid. It's ersatz-"Mad About You" with babies added. In other words, it's almost worthless. The only good thing in it is that it stars Julie Warner, the most adorable TV actress who isn't Helen Hunt (and, like Hunt, a graduate of Billy Crystal's movie "Mr. Saturday Night").
"Newsradio" (8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Channel 2) -- Much more like it. They discovered a secret on "Hill Street Blues." The way to put a workplace -- any workplace at all -- on television is to keep the story moving, to toss the spotlight around the set like a hot potato. Two people do some spritz in one corner of the room. Then 30 seconds more from three people in another. Then 25 more seconds with two other people behind a closed door.
Nobody gets too much dialogue. Nor does any of the dialogue have to be all that great. As long as you keep whipping it around the infield quickly enough, whatever genuinely good dialogue you have will blur into the mediocre stuff that comes 10 seconds later.
You can make great TV drama out of this. You can also make a passable sitcom which is, so far, what "Newsradio" is. It has the actors, the quirky characters, the easy setup (radio, that traditional home of the terminally neurotic) and the inclination to whip it around the horn until it's time to get something started. At some point, actual amusing dialogue may suddenly appear and they'll have a viable TV show, not a high-velocity mediocrity. In the meantime, the velocity keeps it watchable. Which is more than can be said for:
"The George Wendt Show" (8 p.m. Wednesday, Channels 4 and 9) -- Why does the throw-it-around-the-infield approach work so well? Because it imitates the basic action of the modern TV viewer which is Channel Surfing. McLuhan's old notion (stolen from Jacques Ellul) is that media are the extensions of man and each new technological advance recreates culture, society and, in fact, people themselves. We create technology which, in turn, recreates us.
The TV remote has recreated television. Certainly it has recreated TV viewers, TV commercials and TV shows.
Courtesy of my blessed remote control device, I made it through about seven and a half minutes of "The George Wendt Show" before surfing on over to O.J. or a duck documentary on the Discovery Channel or some promising slasher sleaze on the USA network (I forget which. Forgive me).
What I saw had Wendt and his brother as a sitcom version of the Magliozzi Brothers, the Massachusetts mechanics who do the delightful NPR show "Car Talk" with Boston accents so thick you could serve them with a side order of tartar sauce.
Wendt isn't one tenth as funny as "Car Talk."
The move for Wendt after "Cheers" couldn't have been simpler -- a spinoff called "Norm!" to star America's favorite beer-swilling fat guy. Put it on right after "Frasier" and you'd be in business.
But no, he had to go for this clunker.
"Hope and Gloria" (8:30 p.m. Thursday, Channel 2). It's the best of the new sitcoms, not because the writing is especially good or the set up, which sounds like 240 other sitcoms just this year alone (two friends who live across the hall from each other).
The actresses are what's good about this "Kate and Allie" and "Mary Tyler Moore Show" descendent -- the wonderful Jessica Lundy who seems to have cloned equal parts of Debra Winger and Margaret Colin, and an infectiously ditzy actress named Cynthia Stevenson who somehow manages to take commuter flights back and forth to Pluto without entirely losing your respect.
Lundy and Stevenson are a sitcom. All somebody had to do was plug in some words, even some as bad as those on "The George Wendt Show."
The hope is the same as "Newsradio" -- that somehow somewhere the words catch up to the quality of the actors on the show before the guillotine falls.