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When bad TV shows happen to good actors

The best thing about television is that you really don't have to hate anything. In a 200-channel universe, avoiding it is usually more than sufficient.

But "Big Love," as the slogan goes, isn't just television, it's HBO. From the first minute I heard about HBO's "Big Love," I hated the very idea of it. It's certainly not because I hate Utah, Mormons or the very idea of polygamy. It's just that no matter who writes it or directs it or stars in it, it's a show with only one plot: it has to be about polygamy. Every episode has to show you how a man with three wives handles the details -- all the little blue pills he has to pop and all the kids he has to cheer on and all the money he has to worry about even though he's a pretty good businessman.

No matter how you dress it up, it's just a rustic dirty joke. It's the "Beverly Hillbillies" in Utah -- a way for the American urban middle class to sneer at backwoods folkways.

When you actually watch it, though, for all the ersatz "understanding," they've added yet another dirty joke to it: the guy's parents are Gothic horrors played by Grace Zabriskie and the redoubtable and too-little seen Bruce Dern. Zabriskie, especially, is frequently seen in close-ups that could wither the average houseplant.

Now that I've actually seen a couple of episodes, I dislike it even more than I expected. The reason is that this is what Zabriskie, Dern, Bill Paxton, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloe Sevigny and Harry Dean Stanton are going to be doing for a couple of years, no doubt. I vigorously applaud anything at all that provides a regular paycheck for some of the juiciest character actors and actresses we currently have.

But to have such a singular conclave of wonderful performers condemned to spending so much of their time on this ultra-sophisticated Gothic HBO version of "The Beverly Hillbillies" is a deplorable waste. To have to watch this thing just to get a glimpse of Dern and Stanton is appalling. So is avoiding the only chance we get to see some of these people.

Luckily, one of TV's very best returns in early April -- Showtime's "Huff," the show that not only gives regular paychecks to Hank Azaria, Blythe Danner and the great Oliver Platt, but also regularly gives them wonderful fictional lives to inhabit and fascinating things to do.

Can "Huff" disinfect premium TV after "Big Love?" Sure. So, by the way, can "The Sopranos" when its creator David Chase actually writes an episode.

Meanwhile, I was all set to avoid "The New Adventures of Old Christine," a new one-joke sitcom about the misfortunes of Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a divorcee trying to stay afloat in the dating pool and single motherhood.

Because I was never an avid "Seinfeld" watcher, I never had any feelings one way or the other about Louis Dreyfus' post-"Seinfeld" flounderings in prime time -- or of her post-"Seinfeld" fellow flounderers Jason Alexander and Michael Richards either (who, all three, prove conclusively that mounting a successful sitcom is also devilishly difficult).

I was all set, hit or flop, to go on with life as if it didn't exist -- except for one thing: it's not bad.

Someone -- and I'm willing to bet it was Louis-Dreyfus -- was smart enough to know that no sitcom can make it on one star. For every Jerry, there have to be an Elaine, a George and a Kramer; for every Lucy there had to be an Ethel, a Ricky and a Fred. In the sitcom biz, you've got to have a strong "sit" for there to be "com."

And on "The New Adventures etc.", someone was smart enough to know that if ever there was an Ethel Mertz waiting to happen to some lucky Lucy Ricardo, it is the wonderful Wanda Sykes.

Sykes can't keep a sitcom alive by herself spritzing everyone who comes within 25 feet of her.

She's already proven that. But she was, far and away, the best thing (the only good thing) about the J.Lo/Jane Fonda comeback movie "Monster-in-Law." Give her a Lucy to bounce off and here is, quite possibly, an Ethel of genius.

Whether "The New Adventures" can keep her in the fold long enough to prove that is dubious. For now, though, relish her and Louis-Dreyfus together.


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