'Billy' has some heart, if not humor

MEDIA MONITOR

January 31, 1992|By Steve McKerrow

The days of Jim and Margaret Anderson ("Father Knows Best") or Ward and June Cleaver ("Leave It To Beaver") are long gone on television, but the apparent yearning for a stable family remains.

How else to look at "Billy," a new ABC sitcom premiering tonight? The show (at 9:30, Channel 13) creates yet another unconventional family unit. Pay attention, it's complicated.

Scottish comedian Billy Connolly returns as Billy MacGregor, the same character he did on last year's final season of "Head of the Class." The Fillmore High School of that show has closed and Billy is now teaching poetry at a community college in California.

As we learn in the opening, his alien visitor work permit has expired and he is threatened with deportation to Scotland. ("It could be worse. They could send me to England," he says.)

However, one of his students is Mary (Marie Marshall), a divorced mother of three who has created an illegal basement apartment in her Berkeley home, and needs a paying tenant to make ends meet.

The solution, of course, lies only in sitcom land: The two get married to save Billy from deportation, but in name only. To keep up appearances, he moves into the apartment, but only as a tenant. "I don't want you to, you know, get involved with us," says Mary.

Fat chance. By the end of tonight's premiere, Billy is well on the way to becoming a member of the family -- at least enough to fool the immigration agent who comes by to check up on him.

On a first look, "Billy" is not very funny, really. It trots out the usual cast of kids, including a sassy teen-age son who tells his mom, "You need therapy" (Johnny Galecki), a bright middle girl (Natanya Ross) and a cute-as-a-button youngster (Clara Bryant).

Some will find the show sexist, too, for Mary is obviously not succeeding as a single working parent/student, and the apparent solution to her problems is to find a man. Will these two end up in a real couple relationship, like Tony and Angela of "Who's the Boss" and countless other odd couples?

You can bet on it. There may even be a faint reverse xenophobia at work here, for Mary's domestic first husband apparently ran out on the family. Is the worldly calm and wisdom of a foreigner a slap at the home-grown male?

Yet there is some heart to "Billy" that may make it worthwhile to watch, at least for a few episodes. Connolly is a refreshingly different sort of TV father figure, which may reflect some real-life overlap. His bio notes that he has five children of his own, ranging from 2 to 22.

And it is hard not to like a character whose prime need when he moves into Mary's house is to find a good spot for his big potted plant, which he has named Robert. (Get it? Like pop singer Robert Plant.)

And the subtle America-from-the-outside slant that has supported Connolly's stage comedy can be amusing, too, as when he lulls both little Annie (and her mom) to sleep with Scottish folk tales.

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