John Larroquette brightens night with new show

TELEVISION PREVIEW

September 02, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

"The John Larroquette Show" is a class act.

It's as good as the pilot of "Roc," and that's saying something. It has jokes that reach for the gut as well as the funny bone, a superb supporting cast, and a star with talent to burn. And the writing just doesn't let up.

Larroquette, the four-time Emmy winner from "Night Court," finds himself in another nocturnal world at 9:30 tonight on WMAR (Channel 2), as John Hemingway, a recovering alcoholic.

He's heading for his first night on the job as manager of a bus station in downtown St. Louis. Before going to work, though, he stops at an AA meeting. The opening lines of the show are, "Hi. My name is John Hemingway. I stand here before you with good news. I have been sober for 36 hours."

That is an opening for theater, not for the usual network sitcom. But this is a brave new comedy that benefits from Fox and cable showing the traditional networks that sitcoms with an edge, such as "Married . . . With Children" and "The Larry Sanders Show," can be hits. It also benefits from the fact that Larro- quette is himself a recovering alcoholic, and he makes all of it work for him with this character.

"Tonight may be the most important night of my life," Hemingway tells the audience of fellow alcoholics. "And all I have to do is get through it without taking a drink."

What a great setup. It adds tension and a sense of reality to all that follows.

What Hemingway has to get through in the next 20 minutes of the show is a missing bus and a brassy assistant played deliciously by Liz Torres. She's street-wise, world-wise and has the hots for Andy Garcia, all of which she announces to Hemingway within 30 seconds of meeting him.

Hemingway also faces Dexter, played by Daryl (Chill) Mitchell, who runs the lunch counter in the bus terminal and who, in the first two episodes available to critics, appears to be the second standout performer. Mitchell's comedic timing rivals Larroquette's, and that ain't chopped liver. It's clear from his presence on stage that this guy knows physical and visual comedy.

It should be noted that this is adult comedy. The punch line to one joke involves the size of a man's penis. The punch lines to a couple of others deal with suicide. And there's a transvestite who regularly uses the men's room to change.

This is not a show that's likely to be sponsored by Greyhound or Trailways. This is the bus station from hell. The last six managers died on the job -- four were killed. The first thing Hemingway sees when he enters his office is the chalk outline of a body on the floor. The men's room is so grim it's only alluded to as if it were death and the show were a Greek tragedy.

The tragedy of this sitcom is the regular time slot NBC has given it opposite "Roseanne" on ABC, starting Sept. 14. This is not a show that will ever beat "Roseanne" -- there's an authentic darkness here that's sure to turn off some viewers.

So, be prepared to skip around the schedule, once NBC starts trying out new times for the show. "The John Larroquette Show" is one of the few new shows worth going out of your way to see.

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