"Room for Two," the new ABC sitcom that debuts at 9:30 tonight on WJZ-TV (Channel 13), isn't exactly like "Rhoda," the old CBS sitcom that aired in the late 1970s.
At least once every episode, Rhoda (Valerie Harper) used to say to her mother, Ida (Nancy Walker), "Ma, Ma, stop it. You're pushing my buttons and making me crazy." In "Room for Two," Jill (Patricia Heaton) says to her mother, Edie (Linda Lavin), "Mom, Mom, stop it. You're pushing my buttons and making me crazy."
"Ma" becomes "Mom." Who says there are no new ideas in network sitcoms?
Don't, though, let the lack of originality totally turn you off to this new series. It has its charms and even a few smiles -- thanks mainly to Lavin, who carried the sitcom "Alice" for nine good seasons back in the "Rhoda" years.
Lavin plays Edie Kurland, a recently widowed woman who sells the family appliance business and home in Dayton, Ohio, and shows up in Manhattan to visit her grown daughter, Jill, who is a successful TV producer for a morning show, "Wake Up, New York." The visit to NYC becomes an extended stay after Mom visits the set of the show and winds up debating one of the guests on-air. Mom's plain-spoken, Midwestern common sense is such a big hit with viewers that Jill's boss offers Mom a job as commentator on the show. Mom moves in with Jill in Jill's cramped apartment until Mom can find her own place. This is where Jill really starts kvetching about how her buttons are getting pushed.
What saves the show is mainly Lavin's range as an actress. You won't see much of it in tonight's pilot, but the second episode (which airs next week) is about Edie's first night alone in her new apartment -- the first night of the rest of her new life in NYC. Lavin plays Edie scared, brave, silly, funny, needy, tough -- the way Mary Tyler Moore used to play Mary Richards on some of the more touching episodes of the old "Mary Tyler Moore Show."
"Room for Two" is a tryout series. Its ratings the next few weeks will determine whether it makes ABC's fall schedule. The curious thing about this tryout, though, is that ABC is giving it the scheduling slot usually held by "Coach," a hit show that's taking a few weeks off. But "Coach," a sitcom about a college football coach in Minnesota, is a guys' show. And "Room for Two," with Edie and Jill constantly talking about their "feelings," is decidedly not a guys' show.
So what is ABC going to accomplish at 9:30 Tuesdays except making guys who are looking for "Coach" mad? The buttons you hear being pushed tonight might not be Jill's emotional ones but rather those of channel changers all over America as guys angrily tune out ABC.