'In the House' shows Los Angeles on the sunny side

April 10, 1995|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

The setting: a posh suburb of Los Angeles.

The main players: a former star running back in the NFL and a young, attractive, recently divorced mother of two.

The premise: The woman thinks the guy living in the guest house might be a cool nanny for her two kids, as well as a new best friend for her.

No, it's not "O. J., the Sitcom." It's "In the House," a new NBC sitcom, starring LL Cool J and Debbie Allen, which premieres at 8:30 tonight on WBAL (Channel 11). And it's not surprising that elements of the most popular story in America are starting to find their way into television sitcoms and dramas.

"In the House" is in the time slot following Will Smith's "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," the No. 1 show in prime time with black viewers. "In The House" is produced by Quincy Jones and Winifred Hervey, the same team that makes "The Fresh Prince," and it is definitely the series that NBC wants to replace "Blossom" with next fall. The plan is to have back-to-back former rappers in black-to-black sitcoms set in sunny-leafy-upscale O.J. Land -- a possible new "Fantasy Island" for young, inner-city dreamers.

As sitcom pilots go, tonight's is a good one. The main reason is Debbie Allen, the Emmy- and Tony-award-winner who sets a record for Hollywood hyphenates as a successful producer, director, dancer, actress, writer and choreographer. Allen is an exceptional physical comedian. Her body movement is in a league with some of the work Charles Dutton did on "Roc."

Allen plays Jackie Warren, described in the NBC press material as "a once-wealthy socialite, now entering the work force for the first time after her husband announces a mid-life crisis, a girlfriend named Sacha." In the pilot, Jackie takes a job as secretary to a high-powered, buppie attorney (Lisa Arrindell Anderson).

Jackie also leases a small but lovely little home in the suburbs of L.A. and moves in with her two children -- a whiny, materialistic teen daughter (Maria Campbell) and a brainy 8-year-old boy (Jeffery Wood).

She leases, but does not read the lease, which says she and her kids share the kitchen with the man living in a guest house over the garage. The man is Marion Hill (LL Cool J), former star running back for the Los Angeles Raiders, whose career was cut short by a knee injury. He's now in rehab preparing for a comeback. Until he can land a new NFL contract, he's leasing his house and living over the garage.

OK, the setup is a little strained. But think of trying to explain the living arrangements of Kato Kaelin, O. J. Simpson and Nicole Brown Simpson as a sitcom premise.

The other reason that the pilot flies is LL Cool J. He's acted before, in the feature films "Toys" and "The Hard Way." And, of course, music videos count for something in terms of acting experience. But his ease with a punchline is a pleasant surprise. He's not great, but he's better than Smith was the first season of "The Fresh Prince."

Beyond being a pretty good sitcom in a great time period, though, "In the House" is also the stuff of cultural studies.

The producers are working overtime tonight to present Marion Hill as a black, male role model. Watch the interplay between him and Jackie's frail, timid son. Note the transformation that takes place in the boy in just a half-hour tonight once this athletic man steps up and fills the void left by the boy's father (the rich lawyer who left his family for a woman named Sacha).

The sitcom's world of sunshine and relative affluence is worth thinking about, too. According to the A.C. Nielsen ratings, most black viewers did not want to watch sitcoms set in working-class neighborhoods of Baltimore ("Roc") or Los Angeles ("South Central") and, as a result, both were canceled last year by Fox.

But it's just the opposite with many black viewers, according to the numbers, when it comes to a sitcom set in Bel-Air or the upper-middle-class world of the Huxtables.

No one says the sitcom universe should conform to reality. But it will be interesting to see how this fantasy of a secretary hiring a football star as a nanny for her kids fares in the ratings. It could be especially telling as we watch "Under One Roof" -- the CBS drama about a hard-working, black, middle-class family in Seattle -- die in the ratings.

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