Television tinkering can be a wondrous process. Last year, CBS' "Royal Family," created by Eddie Murphy, was one of a very few new series showing ratings strength. Then, in October, Redd Foxx, who was playing the lead role of Al Royal, died suddenly. Sincere mourning was heavily tinged with panic.
Jackee, formerly of the series "227," was grabbed to play Ruth, also known as Coco, who is the half-sister of Victoria, Al's widow, still portrayed by Della Reese.
More time was needed, though, to work out necessary adjustments, and the show went off the air temporarily.
Tonight it's back (Channel 11, 8 p.m.), with Jackee and Ms. Reese sharing carefully calibrated star billing. One slight change: Coco is now Victoria's elder daughter. A family portrait on the living-room wall allows Foxx to gaze down on the new proceedings, looking as grumpy as ever.
On one level, "The Royal Family" cruises on standard insult humor, with the one-liners flying furiously between proper, church-going Victoria and sassy, sultry Coco, who ran away from home when she was 17.
Daughter: "I'm still trying to find myself." Mom: "Look on the sofa in front of the TV."
Coco is always looking, someone observes. "And she is always finding," huffs Mom.
Of course, Mom and daughter are more like each other in their stubbornness than either will admit.
Then there are the weekly plot hooks that give the rest of the Royal family a chance, however slight, to get into the act. Tonight, for instance, 15-year-old Curtis (Larenz Tate), son of the divorced Elizabeth (Mariann Aalda), Victoria's other daughter, gets some ribbing from friends about being the only man in a house full of women. Beneath the light banter lurks a serious issue about father figures, or their absence, in a family. It's not pressed, but it is felt.
Meanwhile, the new local deacon (Ron Glass), fussed over by Victoria, takes Coco on a date and turns out to be a smooth but not very effective lecher. He then tells Victoria that Coco "was all over me," which Mom is all too ready to believe. Coco is furious, explaining that "just because I dress a little hot doesn't mean I'm looking for the devil." By half-hour's end, be assured, Mom will learn the truth.
The chemistry between Jackee and Ms. Reese will be crucial to the show's chances. The impression conveyed in the first two episodes is that of a wary truce: You stay out of my way, I'll stay out of yours.
Fragile is not a description that applies to either actress. Ms. Reese has a booming voice that adds considerable heft to her matriarchal authority. And Jackee is an apparently compulsive scene-stealer, using everything from teeny-tiny rapid footsteps to line readings suggesting intense study of Mae West. Stunningly curvaceous, Jackee has also been given a wardrobe that no Coco could possibly afford.
Eddie Murphy Television is serious about saving "The Royal Family." Lenny Ripps and Rob Dames have been recruited from the ABC hit series "Full House" to serve as co-executive producers. The script writers have obviously been told to beef up the wisecracks with real contemporary issues. And Jackee, given the right vehicle, can indeed be irresistible.