'Delta' relies heavily on star's engaging personality

September 15, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Part Elizabeth Taylor and part Minnie Pearl, Delta Burke is one dTC of TV's most intriguing presences.

How does she look? How blond is her hair? Can she sing? Does she seem unhappy? How does she feel about "Designing Women" and what happened to her on that show? How's her weight?

The questions have been flying since May when ABC announced that Burke was going to star in a sitcom this fall about a hairstylist in the South who leaves her husband and goes off to Nashville to chase her dream of becoming a country and western singer.

When it comes to a persona like Burke's, how "good" or "bad" the show she's in probably doesn't matter that much. Thumbs-up or thumbs-down calls -- which rarely provide much more than a clue to the reviewer's likes and dislikes when it

comes to TV anyway -- are even less helpful when we're dealing with a Delta.

ABC knows that it's selling personality. That's why the series is called simply "Delta." That's also why Delta Burke's character is named Delta Bishop. The network is purposely blurring the line between actress and character, hoping that viewers will bring all their interest and feelings toward Delta Burke to bear on Delta Bishop and tune in each week just the way they buy tabloids and magazines with her picture on the cover.

So, let's get to the important stuff.

Burke tries hard as a singer, but she's not very good. Tonight's pilot for "Delta" ends with Bishop getting her big chance to sing onstage during amateur night at the Nashville nightclub where she has found a job waiting tables. She sings "Blue Moon Over Kentucky," and it's supposed to be a big, emotional ending. But mainly some of her fans are going to feel like cringing at some of the musical choices she makes.

As for the weight thing, some viewers who have not been following her in the tabloids are going to be shocked by how much weight she has put on. Discussing weight -- especially a male reviewer talking about the weight of female performer -- is not something I'm comfortable with. But, outside of Taylor, no celebrity's diets and weight gains or losses have been so much a public matter. And the putting-on and taking-off of weight is part of the public's Delta Watch.

Personally, I think Burke is an outstanding TV comedian cast (by herself, I should add, as co-executive-producer) in a mishmash of a sitcom.

"Delta" is supposed to be slinging a kind of mainstream, pink-collar feminism, with Bishop leaving a man who mocks her dreams and then braving all the risks between her and personal fulfillment. But the pilot, at least, is regressive in its vision of fulfillment. Burke and the other producers haven't quite figured the ideology out yet.

They haven't even figured out what kind of world Bishop now livesin. In the pilot that was first sent to critics in July, Bishop's Nashville was full of redneck stereotypes. In a new pilot -- the one ABC will air tonight -- most of the male characters have changed 180 degrees to look as if they could be from Chicago. The first pilot was full of cowboy hats; there isn't one to be seen in the remake.

"Delta" is up against two hit shows in its regular time spot at 8 Thursday nights -- "The Simpsons" on Fox and "A Different World" on NBC. It is going for an older, white, rural audience. Burke's celebrity appeal might be enough to make "Delta" a winner with that group. But will that audience alone be enough to attract advertising dollars to ABC?


!When: Tonight at 9:30.

Where: WJZ (Channel 13).

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