Sly Fox plays dumb

April 19, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

"Top of the Heap," the new Fox sitcom, looks dumb and sounds even dumber. But underneath is a clever comedy, carefully calibrated to a blue-collar audience.

The sitcom, which airs at 9:30 p.m. Sundays on WBFF-TV (Channel 45), stars Joe Bologna and Matt LeBlanc as Charlie and Vinnie Verducci, father and son. Charlie is the super in a rundown apartment building, but his real work in life is finding a rich woman for his hunk of a son.

Sound cynical? It is.

Fox sneaked the series, which is produced by the same team that created "Married . . . With Children," on the schedule last Sunday without making it available for preview. The reason is that Fox knows critics are usually pretty rough on shows like this, not sharing the sensibility of the intended audience. The critics, Fox figures, are looking for a dry white wine; Fox is serving beer in cans. As a result, such shows are often dismissed as stupid.

But "Top of the Heap" is not stupid, once you peel past all the juvenile and generally offensive double entendres. It's about sex and power and very real class distinctions in American life.

Vinnie -- in black jeans, T-shirt and leather jacket -- is a direct descendant of Fonzie of "Happy Days," who was himself a TV-sweetened version of the genuine rebels played on film by James Dean and Marlon Brando. The leather jacket and the thick hair are TV's way of telling us Vinnie's got it. Got what? The magic of sexual power.

Last week's premiere, for example, was about Vinnie's getting a job at a country club, where all the women swooned over him, while their fat, rich, hairless husbands sat at the bar. The dialogue centered on how the husbands couldn't satisfy these women, but Vinnie excited them with just a glance. The men might be movers in the corporate world, but Vinnie has dance-floor power, bedroom power.

Some viewers may find that offensive. But others are going to find empowerment in that message, especially in these hard economic times.

Vinnie has very little education. And he is not very bright. He makes the kinds of gaffes that allow the country club fat cats to laugh at him. But he's a "good boy," morally superior to the rich guys. That also can be empowering to many viewers.

Attitudes toward "Top of the Heap" are going to be divided sharply along the lines of social class. But that's exactly the way Fox is playing it: Dumb is smart.

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