It's not a fun house when Delta Burke goes to Washington

January 02, 1995|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

A review in yesterday's Today section incorrectly said that actor Jimmy Stewart was dead. Mr. Stewart is alive.

The Sun regrets the error.

"My maid is black, my daughter's adopted, my brother's retarded. And I myself am five times married, fat, not zaftig, big-mouthed, Southern and rich."

That is Congresswoman Suzanne Sugarbaker (Delta Burke) describing herself in a speech she makes before the House of Representatives in the premiere of "Women of the House," Wednesday at 8 on WJZ (Channel 13).


Neither the speech, the character nor the new CBS sitcom they appear in is anything to write the home district about, believe me (even at the postal rates House members get).

Burke's Sugarbaker was a splendid splash of a character in "Designing Women." And there's an Elizabeth Taylor-like fascination with Burke herself as a result of her very public battles with weight and depression. But producers Harry Thomason and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason have managed to take all that and turn it into less than nada in this sitcom about what happens when the former beauty queen goes to Washington to assume the House seat of her dead husband.

Part of the problem is that Burke plays Congress- woman Sugarbaker so big and broad she seems more like a cartoon character than anyone you could care about.

But the main problem is politics, or maybe I should make that ideology. Specifically, it's that the Thomasons appear to be far more concerned with taking inside jabs at the Washington Post and anyone who ever said anything bad about their friend, Hillary Clinton, than they do with trying to be entertaining or funny.

After about the 50th reference to how perception is more important than reality in Washington, how much we should all despise Sally Quinn, and how disappointed Mr. Smith (of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington") would be with Washington today, you check the cassette hoping that you read the label wrong -- that the pilot for this half-hour sitcom is not really an hour long. But no such luck; it's an hour all right, and the pilot just grinds on and on with the Thomasons' muddled politics.

Plot Point One: Sugarbaker gets into trouble with the establishment for the things she says on "Crossfire." (Yes, Michael Kinsey and John Sununu play themselves, proving there's no gutter Washington commentators won't wallow in if the money's right.)

Plot Point Two: Sugarbaker is depressed and about to leave Washington when she and her daughter lip synch to a rousing song, which has some kind of goofy emotional significance and results in Sugarbaker deciding to stay and fight.

Plot Point Three: her big speech before the House, in which she talks about her black maid, Sapphire.

Personally, I think there are less destructive ways to be politically incorrect in hopes of attracting attention (and ratings) than jokes that resurrect the stereo types of "Amos 'N' Andy." But maybe that's just me.

By the time Sugarbaker's House speech ends and the producers cut to the video image of a gray Jimmy Stewart waving from the balcony (actually it's from the Kennedy Center balcony during an awards ceremony before his death), I'll bet lots of viewers are going to want to scream, "Lighten up on the politics already."

We've been down this road before, of course -- in 1979 with Jack Albertson in "Grandpa Goes to Washington" and in 1989 with William Katt in "Top of the Hill." The latter -- about a California surfer who becomes a member of Congress -- was canceled after six episodes.

"Women of the House" will last longer than that. Burke's last outing, "Delta" in 1991, lasted 17 episodes, after all. Then there's the Thomasons' considerable clout with CBS. They used to make great sitcoms, such as "Designing Women," before they became consumed with the Clintons and started making bad sitcoms about politics and Washington, such as "Hearts Afire" and "Women of the House."

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