'The Ringers' is a bad connection to Norman Lear

November 05, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

As a sitcom, "The Ringers" is a bad imitation of Norman Lear.

It has the dull living-room-front-door-couch-and-a-stairway look of the kinds of sitcoms that the networks stopped airing in the late 1970s once they gave up trying to find the next "All in the Family."

It relies on comic premises that are older than George Burns -- like a freeloading brother-in-law who drives the hard-working head of the household crazy.

It's true that there have been worse sitcoms on network TV. But if "The Ringers" wasn't really a commercial, it would hardly be worth talking about. As the latest evolution in the marriage between the art of the sitcom and the hard sell of the ad, though, it's fascinating stuff.

"The Ringers" is a 1990s version of the earliest TV shows made in the late 1940s and early '50s when sponsors, like Maxwell House Coffee, actually produced sitcoms and family dramas for the networks. Today, they only buy 30- and 60-second advertising windows in shows produced by others for the networks.

In such shows from the early days of TV, the main characters were repeatedly endorsing the product in ways they thought were not obvious. For example, during times of family crisis, the mother in a sitcom or family drama such as "The Goldbergs" would ask everyone to sit and "have a nice cup of coffee." The crisis would be solved and the link would be forged in the viewer's mind between coffee and family harmony.

"The Ringers" is doing the same thing for Bell Atlantic Corp. -- only it's being more obvious about it. During Sunday's episode-ad -- which revolves around Rhonda Ringer (Diane Robin) setting up a party for Norman, her freeloading brother -- Ralph Ringer (Tim Haldeman) interrupts the action and directly addresses the audiences at several key points.

Each of the moments when the "fourth wall" comes down follows interaction between one of the Ringers and a new piece of telephone technology, such as call-forwarding. Ralph's speeches attempt to link having the latest in telephone technology with being a good parent, a popular teen-ager or a productive member of society. While the sell is obvious on one level, it is very sophisticated and subtle on another.

As a sitcom, "The Ringers" is full of cliches, corn, sentimentality and hoary comic stereotypes. That should be bad -- massive-tune-out bad. But so were Ross Perot's presidential "infomercials" with all the pie charts and pointers, and millions ate them up with a spoon.

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