'The Good Life' a bad imitation of the Bundys

TELEVISION PREVIEW

January 03, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Is prime-time TV ready for another Al Bundy?

NBC seems to think so from the looks of its new show, "The Good Life," which premieres at 8:30 tonight on WMAR (Channel 2).

There's a bit of buzz on this sitcom. But that's mainly because of who created it -- Jeff Martin and Kevin Curran. Martin wrote for "Late Night With David Letterman" and "The Simpsons." Curran wrote for "Married . . . With Children" and Letterman's old NBC show. Both have won several Emmys.

The Letterman sensibility is there from the opening credits. Instead of using the credits to introduce a plausible sitcom world and get viewers to believe in or, at least, suspend their disbelief in it, the producers start out by tearing down the fourth wall. They show fast-cut images of the actors both in and out of character and use the camera to take us backstage, reminding us that it's just a sitcom.

The sitcom world is that of the Bowman family and the warehouse John Bowman manages. Stand-up comic John Caponera plays Bowman, a middle-class Al Bundy. Eve Martin plays Maureen Bowman, the '90s sitcom mom. And they have three children -- Paul (Jake Patellis), Melissa (Shay Astar) and Bob (Justin Berfield).

Bowman also has two very strange co-workers at the warehouse -- crew-cut Drew (played by stand-up comic Drew Carey) and Tommy, a doughnut-eating numbskull (played by Monty Hoffman).

Tonight's episode is about 15-year-old Paul taking up Buddhism because the girl he's dating practices it. It's a plot that doesn't make for many laughs.

But plot is not all that important to "The Good Life." Like Letterman, the show goes for most of its laughs by constant, mocking references to pop culture -- especially TV and films.

One running gag tonight involves Drew lending John his "most cherished possession," his tapes of Ken Burns' "The Civil War," and little Bob taping an episode of "Barney" over one of them.

Another set of jokes involves John making fun of Patrick Swayze in "Ghost" and his daughter and wife warning him "never to do that again."

It's not all that funny. But, yet again, like Letterman, it's a show that seeks to make the viewer feel in the know or hip, because he or she gets the pop culture references and put-downs. And some viewers might enjoy that feeling of smugness more than laughter.

Ultimately, Bowman is a phony Al Bundy or, maybe, just a Bundy Wannabe.

One of the things that makes "Married . . . With Children" and even "The Simpsons" work is their very real sense of social class differences. Fox speaks to and celebrates the working class.

Bowman isn't working class. He's very middle class, and his wife is borderline Yuppie. Neither is especially likable. More important, neither seems as if they would be that freaked if their teen-ager started practicing Buddhism -- at least not the way Al Bundy or Homer Simpson would be freaked.

This is NBC's attempt to reach the Fox audience, but without taking the risks of offending some middle-class sensibilities the way Fox does. Instead, it relies on a hipper, '90s version of a very shopworn sitcom song: dad-as-idiot/man-as-fool.

There's another episode tomorrow night at 8:30 when "The Good Life" settles into its regular time slot. Maybe it will get better. But I saw three episodes and think "The Good Life" gets off to a very bad start.

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