ABC's 'Champs' tosses ex-jocks into sitcom game

January 09, 1996|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Picture 'Family Ties" with a bunch of aging jocks -- and without Michael J. Fox -- and you've pretty much got "Champs."

Which isn't bad, really. The laughs are steady, if not spectacular.

The acting is competent, if not noteworthy (which is where they could use a Michael J. Fox). And the characters are pleasant, if not truly memorable.

The comedy series, which debuts at 9:30 tonight on WMAR-Channel 2, chronicles a group of guys who were teammates on a high school basketball team. They lost the big game when one of them missed a last-second shot, and that shared failure has made the group as tight-knit as any family.

Of course, that closeness doesn't sit well with everyone, particularly the women whose sad fate it is to try and work themselves into this tightest of male bonds.

Timothy Busfield and Ashley Crow play Tom and Linda McManus, the only stable couple in the show's universe. Tom's buddies, who have moved their competition from the basketball court to the poker table, include Herb (Paul McCrane), the semi-nerd who became a doctor; Marty (Kevin Nealon), who's going through a divorce; Vince (Ed Marinaro), the thrice-married super jock now holding down three jobs and struggling to make ends meets, and the slightly befuddled Coach Harris (Ron McLarty).

Surprisingly, tonight's premiere episode is the weakest of the three ABC sent out for review, in part because of an especially obnoxious laugh track that implies every other sentence is a riot.

Maybe it's because the show spends so much time and effort introducing each character and establishing their various personas, but tonight's premiere never gets up much of a head of steam.

But stick with 'Champs," because things improve once the show is able to actually develop story lines.

Over the next two weeks, Marty finds his ex-wife dating a 25-year-old waiter and has trouble letting go, Herb falls for one of Linda's friends, who unfortunately doesn't fall back, and Vince has to find a way to pay for his son's art-school tuition.

Busfield, who cut his television chops on "thirtysomething," may be the series' weakest link. Not that he's awful, but he just doesn't have the presence to anchor a show.

Crow, as his ever-understanding wife, quietly steals just about every scene they're in together.

Marinaro and Nealon, veterans of "Hill Street Blues" and "Saturday Night Live," respectively, head up a fine supporting cast.

But no one delivers the sort of break-out performance this show will need to really stand above the rest.

With Gary David Goldberg, who created "Family Ties," as its executive producer, "Champs" certainly has the pedigree to succeed.

Plus, as the first network offering from Dreamworks SKG, the entertainment colossus formed last year by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen, you know ABC will give it every chance to thrive. The network poo-bahs have already given it the choice time slot that had been occupied until last month by "Coach."

"Champs" may not seem like much of a champ out of the gatebut at least it's a contender.

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