We're talking milestone here. Jenny McCarthy, God help us, has made TV history. She's the first Playboy Playmate to have her own sitcom -- and on Sunday night (8:30, Channel 2) no less, that bastion of family viewing. But in an era when Traci Lords has a perfectly plausible acting career and "Nash Bridges" is sneaking soft-core sirens (Shannon Tweed, Shannon Whirry) into supporting roles, why not a prime-time Playmate with a sitcom named after her?
"Jenny" debuted on the same Sunday that David Brinkley officially took his leave from American television. If the end of TV's Brinkley era and the beginning of the Jenny McCarthy era seems too chilling a coincidence for comfort, you're not the only one shifting in your seat.
McCarthy isn't merely a bosomy beauty of the high-gloss Playboy stripe, she is a raucous, tasteless, boundlessly energetic cutup -- the Queen of Spring Break, a wet T-shirt contest waiting to happen. She is now a small and authentic American industry, like Pez candy. Her autobiography (or whatever) will grace bookstores any month now, and video stores are still full to bursting with her on tape. The Jenny lunch box is no doubt just down the road.
For those who haven't followed her accession to the cultural throne, she climbed to monarchic heights through MTV's "Singled Out," which is the cattle-car version of "The Dating Game," to her own MTV skit show and various ad campaigns.
It's in the latter two that her full Jenny-ness emerged in full gross-out flower. I stopped watching her MTV comedy show when the vomit and phlegm jokes seemed unremitting. One of her ad campaigns -- which was banned and pulled before it ever made the airwaves -- featured Jenny on the toilet in one ad and eating a burrito and then gaseously clearing out an elevator in another.
Her explanation of her exuberant grossness usually runs along the lines of "What's a poor Playmate to do? This way people see that I'm a nut, just like the girl next door."
I never lived next door to a girl who made relentless vomit and flatulence jokes, but then, if pressed to discuss it in open court, I'd have to admit I've led a bit of a sheltered life. This is one life deprivation, though, I'm fully prepared to live with.
Whether or not the next Lucille Ball (her stated ambition) resides somewhere inside Jenny's splendrous and much-exhibited skin is a matter I'm willing to hold open until her new sitcom gets plenty of air time.
There is no point trying to hide in the toolshed and pretend that a tidal wave of vulgarity isn't sweeping away old bastions of taste in America, because it is. It can't be stopped. All that anybody can do is dam it up on occasion, contain it and present it in a reasonably sophisticated context.
Considering how gross Jenny can be when left to her own devices, NBC's "Jenny" does a surprisingly good job of separating her exuberance from her yuckiness. It was, heaven help me, actually funny at times. She plays a supermarket checkout clerk in Utica who discovers that her father was a mediocre Hollywood actor when he dies and leaves her his house. (In the words of the immortal Judy Tenuta: "It could happen.")
Far more interesting than the fact that this "Laverne and Shirley Meet the Beverly Hillbillies" is occasionally funny is Jenny's War Against Bimboness. As far as I can determine from "Singled Out" and now this, the whole point of being the Queen of Spring Break is to be a kind of gross-out virgin -- in other words, to spurn all the men you can't drive away with your "sense of humor." The message of Jenny McCarthy seems to be: "Sure, I look like this, but no actual hairy-legged man is ever going to have me. If I can't gross him out first, I'll just order him out of my house. And this is how I'll prove to the world that I'm more than just a centerfold."
I don't think all this works quite the way our Jenny wants it to, but I have to admit that it's awfully interesting. She's America's first anti-sex sex symbol. Whatever else she is, she's a minor American phenomenon who could turn out to be a major one in a flounce.
And that raises an interesting question: Why has her show -- which NBC got through a bidding war -- been scheduled at 8:30 p.m. after "Men Behaving Badly"? If ever there was a case of putting the cart before the horse, it's that. To have any faith in dear Jenny at all is to know that even though she's no Lucille Ball, she's definitely a lead-in to . . . well . . . something.
If "Jenny" represents the consummate professional packaging of amateur ambition, Danny Aiello's "Dellaventura" -- in the suicide time slot opposite "NYPD Blue" -- has become one of my favorite shows of the season by being virtually a weekly home movie.
Take a look at the credits of "Dellaventura." There seem to be Aiellos everywhere. If any more relatives were packed into the "Dellaventura" staff, they could probably have a First Communion dinner right there on the spot.
Aiello plays an ex-cop who's turned into a kind of "Equalizer" private investigator. He dons sunglasses and black leather jacket and wanders around righting wrongs and making the streets safe for widows, orphans and needy character actors. It's narrated in the most lovably amateurish voice-over I've heard on a TV show since the pseudo-Chandler P.I. malarkey of the early '50s, TV's Jurassic era.
If it weren't endearing, it would be hilarious. But it's so willfully semi-professional that it's like a mom-and-pop corner grocery trying to survive in a big-chain world. It's hard not to love.