It's nothing to rave about, but 'Madman' has an edge

September 22, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

In real estate, they say location is everything. That's true, too, for new TV shows. No single factor is more important than where a show is located on the prime-time schedule.

No new series makes that point better than "Madman of the People," the NBC sitcom starring Dabney Coleman, which will premiere at 9:30 tonight on WMAR (Channel 2).

I don't think much of "Madman." But it is the one new series that virtually every advertising agency media buyer has picked as a hit.

It's not that the ad gang thinks all that much more of the quality of "Madman" than I do, but it's got one of best locations in all of prime time. "Madman" is on right after "Seinfeld" on NBC, going up against the second half-hour of "Eye to Eye with Connie Chung" and two new, hour-long dramas that have yet to find an audience, "McKenna" and "Uptown Undercover." Based on that scheduling, it's a hit.

As for the show itself, I'm beginning to think Coleman is the most overrated actor on TV. Since the cult favorite "Buffalo Bill," he's been in "Slap Maxwell" on ABC and "Drexell's Class" on Fox, two of the most misguided and quickly killed sitcoms in recent memory.

In all of them, he's played the same character -- an over-the-top, ego-bloated, angry crank. Call him One-Note Coleman, and make a note that each successive attempt gets worse -- up to and through "Madman."

Like Bill and Slap, Coleman's Jack Buckner in "Madman" is an aging, small-time media figure. He's a columnist on a weekly New York City magazine that was big in the 1960s but has fallen on hard times. He's supposed to be very anti-establishment, but he seems to me pretty conservative in many ways.

In a last attempt to save the publication, the company that owns it hires Buckner's fast-track daughter (Cynthia Gibbs) to run the magazine.

That's the premise: The tough, old, liberal columnist and the young, dressed-for-success daughter who is suddenly his boss are at loggerheads in the workplace. He calls her a "suit"; she calls him a "flake."

The biggest problem with "Madman" is the inconsistency at the core of Buckner. NBC, well aware of the track record of recent Coleman characters, has tried to soften Buckner to make him more likable. So, instead of just being an over-the-top, ego-bloated crank, he's an over-the-top, ego-bloated crank who's occasionally sentimental for no apparent reason.

The show also has a patchwork feel to it, as characters play off Buckner's quirks. The other characters seem more like setups for his punch lines than real people in whom you might have an interest.

In the end, though, what are unbelievable characters compared to an unbelievably great time period? If "Madman" is the hit it's predicted to be, Coleman ought to give half his salary to Jerry Seinfeld and thank NBC for letting him ride those coattails.

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