'Phenom' may be winning match if adults clear out of center court

September 14, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

"Can I be a great tennis player and a normal person, too?"

It's not exactly, "To be, or not to be." But it's the question that drives "Phenom," a new ABC sitcom about a 16-year-old tennis whiz, which premieres at 8:30 tonight on WJZ (Channel 13).

And 16-year-old Angela Goethals is an engaging enough actress to make you care about the journey her character takes to find the answer.

Move over, Blossom, it looks like network TV has another girl-coming-of-age show worth watching.

I say "looks like," because it isn't clear from the pilot which direction this show is going to take. And, while the girl-coming-of-age track featuring Goethals is a sure winner, there are other forces struggling for the soul of this show.

Those forces are named Judith Light and William Devane, and it doesn't look like either of them is eager to play second fiddle to a kid for the next seven years.

Light plays Diane Doolan, single mother of three children. Goethals plays Angela Doolan, one of those children. Angela just might be the best teen tennis player in the country -- the best amateur teen tennis player in the country, that is.

But the amateur part looks like it's about to change. In the pilot, Angela is discovered by Lou Del La Rosa, a high-powered, unscrupulous tennis coach played by Devane like the devil in "The Devil and Daniel Webster." Lou wants to take Angela under his wing, starting with free tuition to his tennis camp. Lou wants to make a star out of Angela.

But for that to happen, Angela might have to give up her adolescence. Much of tonight's story line deals with Diane Doolan and Lou battling about Angela's future.

That's a lot of stuff to have happening -- all in just 22 minutes. And it's further compounded by Light and Devane doing their best each time they are on camera to sabotage a script that clearly puts Angela at center stage. Let me be clear about this: Light and Devane spend most of their time tonight trying to steal scenes from the kid.

For this show to really click, the producers are going to have to sit Light and Devane down at some point and explain who's the boss. It's the kid with all the talent.

In the end, "Phenom" should succeed. It has one of the best time periods of any new show -- Tuesdays at 8:30 on ABC between "Full House" and "Roseanne." It would take a bomb the magnitude of "Chicken Soup" not to be able to ride out the season in that scheduling hammock.

It has a great producer, James L. Brooks, of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "Taxi" and "The Simpsons."

And, then, there's Goethals. In a scene tonight -- meeting a boy at a party -- she's simply brilliant.

Great time period, savvy producer, and a fresh, new talent. It should be game, set, match . . . if they can just get Devane and Light to quit chewing the scenery.

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