'Pursuit of Happiness' is appealing and funny

September 19, 1995|By John J. O'Connor | John J. O'Connor,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

With some 42 new weekly series tumbling onto the television schedule this season, the sorting-out process takes on awesome dimensions. Among the handier tools is the matter of pedigree. "The Pursuit of Happiness," for instance, which has its premiere tonight at 9:30 on NBC (WBAL, Channel 11), boasts sturdy sitcom roots.

Dave Hackel, the creator and executive producer, has writing credits for "Wings" and before that, "Dear John." His new series has been developed by David Angell, Peter Casey and David Lee, the team that got together on "Cheers" and came into its own with "Wings" and "Frasier." In terms of prime-time credits, that's about as good as it gets.

"The Pursuit of Happiness" could bolster the record. The situation is standard ensemble, rigorously eccentric, but the characters are appealing and the comedy can actually be funny. Tom Amandes, who has such a pronounced James Stewart quality that it is promoted in the show's press kit, plays Steve Rutledge, a lawyer whose relatively stable life suddenly begins disintegrating. It's anxiety time for thirtysomethings.

Steve's wife, Mac (Melinda McGraw), loses her great job at an ad agency. His best friend and business partner, Alex (Brad Garrett), suddenly decides to disclose that he's gay. Steve's loony brother-in-law Larry (Larry Miller) moves into his house and gives no indication of ever leaving. Steve's spirited grandmother (Maxine Stuart) lives in a retirement community and is getting suspiciously absent-minded. And his secretary (Meredith Scott Lynn) seems to devote all her waking hours to being acerbic.

OK, it's a formula. But it's played cleverly and with a degree of charm. There's Alex on the phone after announcing his homosexuality to his family: "Ma, I don't want to see a priest." Pause. "Wait a minute, what does he look like? I'm only joking, only joking." Or there's Grandma describing Steve's "It's a Wonderful Life" face as "open, honest and dumb as a fence post." Bim, bam, boom! "The Pursuit of Happiness" percolates promisingly. It's in the hands of pros.

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