ABC's 'Good & Evil' is different, at first

TV premiere

September 25, 1991|By Michael Hill

In a television season filled with shows that have that musty smell of your grandmother's attic, "Good & Evil" comes on like a breath of a different odor.

Give this new ABC comedy credit -- it's different. This is not another half hour from the tried-and-true cookie cutter that's carving out most of the season's new shows.

Which is not to say that "Good & Evil," which premieres tonight at 10:30 on Channel 13 (WJZ), does not hearken back to its historical roots. But its family tree is slightly demented as the patriarch is the offbeat serial comedy "Soap," and the matriarch is Susan Harris.

No, not the Susan Harris who's been cranking out raunchy laughfests ever since she struck silver in "The Golden Girls," but the Susan Harris who was lauded as one of the most inventive writers in Hollywood when she came up with "Soap" back in the mid-'70s.

"Good & Evil" tries for that kind of offbeat, odd appeal and occasionally gets it. Like its predecessor, it will not appeal to all; there's no attempt at redeeming social importance, just a screwball, off-the-wall attitude that, if it works, will infuse this make-believe world with a reality of its own.

This horse of a different color turns out to be a zebra; it's painted black and white. Teri Garr and Margaret Whitton star as sisters, one all good, the other all evil. Playing a bit against type, the spacey, likable Garr is the bad girl Denise, while rich-bitch specialist Whitton is Miss Goody Two-Shoes Genny.

In the opening scene we learn -- but Denise doesn't -- that her husband, lost four years ago while climbing Everest, has been preserved in ice and is thawing out. Then we are introduced to the nature of these sibling rivals. Denise, running her mother's cosmetics company, couldn't care less that one of the company's wrinkle-reducing products is causing customers' faces to disappear. Genny, a widowed research scientist, refuses to experiment on animals and tests the new vaccine on herself.

There are of course all sorts of soap-opera complications, including the straight arrow of a doctor -- turns out he has some odd tail feathers in his past -- who chases after Genny but is, in turn, pursued by Denise. Cliffhangers, and a voiceover plot summary, end each episode.

The screen comes alive when the sisters' mother -- wonderfully played as a Gloria Vanderbilt knockoff by Marian Seldes -- shows up with her own off-kilter view of life. Then there's Genny's daughter, who hasn't spoken since her father died two years ago.

And we must not forget the brilliant physical comedy of Mark Blankfield, who seeks out the bounds of acceptable taste, an appropriate mission for a show such as this, as he plays a blind scientist who refuses to admit that he's having trouble getting this cane thing down right.

The ultimate problem is that "Good & Evil" cannot be "Soap." For one, the envelope that Harris and company pushed so inventively in 1977 has been stretched all out of shape in 1991, what with cable and Fox and the country in general turning weirdness into a generic item in the marketplace of ideas. Try to push that envelope nowadays and you're likely to get bogged down in cliches.

And, more importantly, Harris burned out doing "Soap." When she returned to weekly TV a few years later, she became known as a creator-deserter of her shows.

She's done that with "Good & Evil" and it shows. Next week's second episode, with Tom Straw listed as executive producer, is much more conventional. The humor that arises in tonight's pilot from the characters' oddities is absent. Instead, the second half hour searches for its laughs with much more conventional gag writing. When Harris leaves, she takes the edge with her.

So, unlike its premise, "Good & Evil" is neither. It is deserving of praise for taking one of the few real chances evident in the 1991 crop of new shows, but it seems destined to fail because it won't follow through on that chancy mission. Instead of blazing a new trail, "Good & Evil" looks like it's just trying to walk a bit differently down a well-trod path.

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