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FRED SAVAGE GROWS FROM 'WONDER YEARS' TO THE 'WORKING' WORLD

If he hadn't begun "Working" (9:30 tonight, Channel 2), Fred Savage undoubtedly would be strolling the same Stanford University grounds as Chelsea Clinton this fall.

The young boy who charmed a nation as Kevin Arnold in "The Wonder Years" is back playing Matt Peyser, a rather straight-looking and -acting college graduate entering the rat race at a generic monolithic corporation, Upton/Webber.

The boss, Tim Deale (Maurice Godin), is an unethical buffoon and sexual harasser of an overqualified sexy secretary from Yale, Hal (Sarah Knowlton). The operations manager, Evelyn (Yvette Freeman of "ER"), is a no-nonsense type who puts fear in the hearts of her employees. And, of course, there is a squeaky-voiced co-worker, Abby (Arden Myrin), who acts as the company cheerleader.

Well, actually she's a song leader.

When Matt is promoted, Abby leads a chorus of "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow."

When it appears that Matt is let go, Abby leads a chorus of "So Long, Farewell" from "The Sound of Music."

The script includes one classic line in which someone tries to explain why management officials travel in packs: "It prevents one of them from taking the risk of having his own opinion."

There are some clever bits in this pointed satire of the straight-laced business world and the corporate games people play. If "Working" has a downside, it is that its cast of zanies is so similar to so many other workplace comedies, especially to NBC's own "NewsRadio."

Savage essentially is playing the Dave Foley squeaky-clean part.

In other words, "Working" is the product of the same kind of generic assembly line business -- in this case, network television sitcoms -- that it ridicules.

Savage played "so long, farewell" by postponing his senior year at Stanford, where he is an English major. His favorite authors?

"My concentration at school is 20th century American writers," he explained in an interview in Los Angeles. "So Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Steinbeck are the guys who I just really enjoy."

You have to love a guy who calls the greatest writers of this century "guys."

That word probably best illustrates what kind of guy Savage has grown into.

As you'll see tonight, he isn't as cute a grown-up as he was a child. But undoubtedly he has grown up well. Just getting into Stanford is an achievement that illustrates his intelligence.

Perhaps the smartest thing he learned as a child is how easy it is for child stars to lose perspective and fall into bad habits that result in their becoming adult failures.

"You definitely hear, unfortunately, more about the kids who kind of got into trouble than you did about . . . Jodie Foster or Brooke Shields or Ron Howard or Susan Dey or Dean Stockwell," said Savage. "The list goes on forever of the people who have done well and is longer than the people who haven't. It just is unfortunate that people focus kind of on those."

The stories of troubled teen actors dominated the headlines while Savage was making "The Wonder Years."

"I think myself and a lot of the other kids who were on TV at the time were getting really involved in the entertainment industry amidst those stories, and I think we've kind of, as a generation that followed that one, of young people on television, really took those lessons to heart and learned from them.

"If you look at the kids who were on TV at the same time as I was, there's Sara Gilbert ('Roseanne'), who just graduated Yale; a good friend of mine, Scott Winger, who was on 'Full House' for several years, is at Harvard."

Danica McKellar, wonderful Winnie Cooper on "The Wonder Years," is at UCLA, and Josh Saviano (best friend Paul Pfeiffer) is at Yale, added Savage.

"Hopefully as the next generation of young stars are ushered in, they can see that being an actor or a young star or celebrity isn't a curse. It's a wonderful thing, and you can really make a great life based on that foundation."

Besides, being a child star means never having to work retail.

Asked if he has ever had a real job, Arnold looked bemused.

"When I was like 6 or 7, no," said Savage. "There's really never been a need for me to go get a job. I was a young kid. I was in high school. Then I went to college. My friends really have had internships. I don't know if that's a real job. I consider this a real job."

It certainly is a tenuous job. If "Working" doesn't work quickly, NBC could quickly send Savage back to Stanford.

He plans to go back for a visit to Palo Alto if "Working" becomes a hit. And where does he plan to stay?

"I live in a fraternity with a bunch of other guys," said Savage. "There will always be a floor I can crash on."

Yup, Kevin Arnold has grown up to be just a regular guy.

Rating: 3 stars out of 5.

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