Tale of four fiances has potential to be engaging

September 18, 1995|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

If not for Elizabeth McGovern, "If Not for You" would be just another sitcom that you could barely remember 15 minutes after the pilot ended.

And, if not for "Murphy Brown," the series would have only a so-so chance of surviving.

But it does have McGovern and it does follow "Murphy Brown" on the CBS Monday night schedule, which means it's both good and lucky -- a hard combination to beat in television, or life.

McGovern and Hank Azaria are the stars of the sitcom. She plays Jessie Kent, one-half of an engaged couple; he plays Craig Schaffer, one-half of another couple.

When the two couples -- strangers to each other -- happen to have dinner in the same Chinese restaurant, it's Jessie and Craig across a crowded room and all that jazz. The earth doesn't exactly move, but chow mein will never again be quite the same experience for either of them.

Unlike most of the new relationship comedies, this is a show that's as much about breaking up as it is laughs, love and cappuccino in the big city (in this case, Minneapolis). Neither Jessie nor Craig is terribly unhappy in their current relationship, although each seems to be engaged to two of the most rigid and boring people in the Midwest.

That's probably the biggest flaw in the series -- the fact that the people to whom both Jessie and Craig are engaged seem to be carbon copies. It's as if the producers had only enough imagination for one bad personality type.

But it's a small problem compared to the big talent and presence of McGovern. Most television actors don't have the stuff to work in feature films; McGovern earned an Oscar nomination for "Ragtime." She's appeared in films ranging from "Ordinary People" to "Racing the Moon."

Her Jessie doesn't have the funniest lines, nor is she the boldest personality in the pilot. But she is the one you can't take your eyes off -- no matter what else is happening on screen.

She's no Roseanne or Murphy Brown. Jessie, a woman who makes her living by reading books on tape, is a quiet type compared to those two. But she has just as strong a hold on our attention. There's some mystery about her; she's someone about whom you want to know more. Most of this is the result of McGovern's acting, not the script.

Jessie Kent is one of the few new characters who looks like she might be capable of inspiring viewers to connect emotionally with her. That is the rock on which long-running, hit series are usually built.

Right now, "If Not for You" doesn't have much beyond the rock of McGovern, and the roll of viewers from "Murphy Brown" into the show that follows it. But that's a promising enough start.

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