ABC's 'Thea' may triumph with super 'sitcom kids'

TELEVISION REVIEW

September 08, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Stand-up comics, single parents and kids.

Viewers are going to be seeing a lot of all three in new TV shows this fall. A half-dozen stand-up comedians are starring in new sitcoms. Four of them play single parents. All of them have lots of sitcom kids.

Call it the Cosby-Roseanne factor, producers and networks trying to reproduce the phenomenal success of those shows.

Stand-up comedian Thea Vidale's "Thea," which premieres at 9:30 tonight on WJZ (Channel 13), is one of the better attempts.

In the series, Vidale plays Thea Turrell, a hard-working widow trying to raise four kids. Vidale, who's probably best known to TV viewers for her "adult" act on HBO's "Def Comedy Jam," makes '' playing a sitcom mom look easy.

Maybe it is. Barbara Billingsley, Beaver Cleaver's mom, after all, wasn't exactly Helen Hayes.

But, despite the title, the focus isn't really on Thea in the pilot. It's on the kids.

The regular time slot for "Thea" is at 8 on Wednesday nights. And 8 o'clock is Kid City in the Land of Television Viewing. Persuade kiddies to watch at 8, and you have a hit, like "Full House" or "Family Matters." ABC works the kiddies better than any other network.

And that's the real strength of "Thea."

It has the most talented, likable and interesting group of new kids on the prime-time block this year. And, with ages ranging from 7 to 16, it should have a little of something for just about every pre-teen or adolescent who's channel surfing instead of doing his or her homework at 8 o'clock.

The most talented member of the kid cast is Adam Jeffries, who plays 16-year-old Jarvis on the show. Jeffries, who was a regular on Fox's "True Colors," exudes a confidence rarely seen in teen TV actors.

Jarvis is an honors student who finds himself playing father to his siblings in the pilot. When he comes up short, he has to answer to Thea.

Jarvis is one of the few African-American teen characters on TV who isn't hip-hop. He's kind of preppy and he's definitely achievement oriented.

But he isn't mocked for it the way, say, Carlton is on "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." In fact, it looks like the show celebrates Jarvis.

But the kid actor who's probably going to mean most to the success of "Thea" is 7-year-old Brenden Jefferson who plays 7-year-old James, Thea's "baby."

Watch this kid as he teases his teen sister while she's talking on the phone with a boyfriend named Leonard.

Then listen to what he does in a singsong voice with the name Leonard when the boyfriend comes to call.

It's almost as funny as the way Rudy Huxtable (Keshia Knight Pulliam) used to say the name of her boyfriend, Bud, so that the "B" exploded and it sounded as if there were about a dozen "u's" in the middle.

Is "Thea" a great show? No.

But it has the elements of a successful 8 o'clock network show.

And it has an African-American teen who's not a stereotype.

That's good enough for me and, I'm guessing, probably about 20 million viewers a week.

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