'Spin City': cynicism in a clever circle Preview: It's politics as unusually funny, but with unsettling bite in Michael J. Fox's return to sitcom television.

September 17, 1996|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

ABC's fall advertising campaign is built on the rock of calling "Spin City" the "funniest, sexiest, smartest new comedy of the year."

It is funny and sexy, no doubt about it. But smart depends on how you define the word.

The sitcom starring Michael J. Fox is sophisticated, snap-crackle clever and deeply cynical -- in fact, it is one of the most cynical television series I have ever seen. If that's your definition of smart, then you will adore this series.

"Spin City" is Alex P. Keaton all grown up and working as a political spin doctor named Michael Flaherty. His actual title is deputy mayor of New York City, but his main job in tonight's pilot is lying to voters and the press as he runs the city and puts out political firestorms created by Mayor Winston (Barry Bostwick). Winston is the good-looking, empty-headed, walking definition of "suit" -- as the term is often applied to male politicians and anchormen distinguished mainly by their hair and tailoring.

Flaherty's problems tonight include: a strike by the sanitation workers, Winston publicly insulting the gay community and Flaherty's journalist girlfriend, Ashley (Carla Gugino), forcing him finally acknowledge they are living together after sleeping with each other for 18 months.

"It's not like I snuck into your apartment -- I've been sleeping here every night for a year and a half," Ashley says.

"As a guest," Flaherty replies.

"Oh, really, as a guest? Who's in that picture over there, Mike," Ashley says gesturing toward a picture on the bedroom dresser.

"Oh, my God," Flaherty says holding it up to his face, "those aren't my parents."

"They're my parents, Mike. Who did you think they were?"

"I thought they came with the frame."

The bedroom scene is full of clever writing, made laugh-aloud funny by Fox's delivery and superb sense of physical movement -- as when he starts an attempt at lovemaking by literally diving into the oversized football jersey Gugino's wearing so that his head enters at the bottom and then pops up through the neck next to hers. Gugino in a football jersey would be sexy enough in its own right for most sitcoms, but here it's only part of what seems like real heat between the two.

So, if it's so funny and Fox and Gugino look like the next Sam and Diane, what could possibly be wrong with "Spin City"?

For me, the problems started after the pleasure of watching ended and I started to think about what I had seen. Most of the jokes are about lying to the public and manipulating the political process.

Flaherty's solution to public concern about the sanitation workers' strike is to lie to the press secretary (Richard Kind) assuring him that it will be settled within 24 hours, so that he will lie to the press. In fact, Flaherty has a big glass jar that holds $10 bills -- the amount staffers in his office are fined whenever any of them tells the press secretary the truth.

Furthermore, Flaherty's solution to the mayor's insult of the gay community is to have one of the heterosexual staffers pose as being gay -- to give the appearance that the mayor hires gays. When that looks as if it won't work, Flaherty tries to co-opt the administration's most vocal gay critic by offering him a job.

Did I mention that Ashley is a reporter who covers City Hall for one of New York's daily newspapers? I will spare you the gallop I would like to take on my journalistic high horse over this fact.

But I can't ignore my belief that there is a connection between a make-believe television show celebrating Flaherty, and real-life spin doctors like Dick Morris and Ed Rollins finding themselves on the cover of Time magazine and the best-seller lists instead of in the kind of disgrace their actions warranted.

In case anyone's forgotten in these days of shortened attention spans, a few years ago Rollins bragged about bribing black ministers in New Jersey to keep their congregations away from the polls in a tight gubernatorial race -- then recanted when his boast caused an uproar.

And no one needs to be reminded that Morris recently resigned as one of President Clinton's key strategists after a report that he'd shared presidential secrets with a $200-an-hour prostitute.

"Spin City" is television as culture, and I am not sure whether a show like this merely plugs into the cynicism already in place in our country or creates more and more of it by making it seem like the hip, in-the-know way to be.

I also am not sure whether the funny part ultimately is in viewers laughing at those of us who are silly enough to still value truth or in the possibility of the last laugh being on a society that comes to believe it is smart, savvy and cool to dissemble, deceive and mock public trust.

Pub Date: 9/17/96

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