'Susan': sudden and very Mary, but no surprises Premiere: Brooke Shields shows a nice touch for comedy in an NBC series that looks all too familiar.

September 19, 1996|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

"Suddenly Susan" is so totally Mary it makes you want to scream. But scream what? Don't watch or must see?

The answer to that question about the new NBC sitcom starring Brooke Shields will probably depend on the age of the viewer.

With its spot between "Seinfeld" and "ER" in NBC's must-see Thursday night lineup, big ratings are all but guaranteed for "Susan." And, in the world of network television, is there anything else that matters? Nobody wants to rip a hit -- especially one with a star who has enough of a buzz about her to land on the covers of Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly on the eve of the new fall season.

I come not to rip Shields or "Suddenly Susan" but to say I am not that impressed.

There is nothing awful about the show, and Shields looks as if she might have loads of comedy talent. But, as Susan, she leaves me cold, and her show begs the question of how many times the Mary story is going to be re-told on network television before someone finds a new one.

In fact, how many times is it going to be re-told by NBC at 9: 30 Thursday nights? Last year, NBC was calling "Caroline in the City" -- the sitcom then sitting in that protected slot -- a "Mary for the '90s." This year, it's promoting "Suddenly Susan" as the "Gen-X Mary Tyler Moore."

This Mary works in San Francisco at a hip magazine called The Gate instead of television station WJM in Minneapolis. Instead of a wisecracking sidekick named Rhoda, Susan's less attractive gal-pal is Vicki (Kathy Griffin). Susan rents rooms in the same kind of Victorian house as Mary, has the same kind of gruff boss and so on and so forth.

The casting of Judd ("St. Elmo's Fire") Nelson as Jack Richmond, Susan's editor boss -- undoubtedly only an NBC press release away from being called a "Lou Grant for the '90s" -- might be the most interesting thing about the pilot.

Nelson is so strong by television standards that you can't take your eyes off him -- to the point that you almost forget Shields is in the room during their two-person scenes.

Actually, Nelson is more a matter of re-casting than casting since he was not in the original pilot. In fact, none of the supporting players in the pilot that will air tonight were in the original pilot shown to television critics in July.

After their less than enthusiastic responses, NBC announced that almost everyone in the pilot except Shields had been fired and that the producers were starting over. "Suddenly Susan" was suddenly retooled.

As for Shields, ever since her guest appearance on the post-Super Bowl episode of "Friends" last year, the only question was how soon NBC would announce that she was starring in her own sitcom. She does have an appealing comedic presence on screen.

The essence of it is in Shields making her long limbs seem loosey-goosey goofy instead of graceful and elegant. Her arms and legs, then, play against her pristine facial beauty in a way that makes the total package seem likable, accessible, perhaps even vulnerable instead of remote. Think of a taller, less edgy version of Tea Leoni, from last year's "Naked Truth" sitcom.

In this regard, Shields is at her best tonight in a scene that starts in a karaoke bar. Susan goes to the bar with Vicki to celebrate starting her new life as a single after leaving her rich, obnoxious fiance at the altar. The two women get drunk, sing, smoke cigars and flirt. Susan also gets very sick and winds up being put to bed by her grandmother and confidante (Barbara Barrie).

Here is where I think the age of the viewer will make a difference. Those who never saw Candice Bergen's Murphy Brown doing Aretha Franklin will probably think Shields is terrific when she goes onstage at the bar after a few too many Jell-O shooters and starts singing for all she's worth. On the other hand, those who remember Bergen's performance will be, well, less impressed.

The big moment in tonight's pilot comes when Susan returns to the magazine after leaving her fiance at the altar. The fiance just happens to be Richmond's brother.

"I'm a new Susan," she tells Richmond in asking if she can return to her old job as a copy editor.

She is a stunned Susan when the surly Richmond not only rehires her but promotes her to writing a column about her life.

"Now, you're alone and confused, probably broke, facing a world full of potential pain and failure," Richmond explains. "Suddenly, Susan, you're interesting."

If this is interesting, I'm glad I never knew the old Susan. But, maybe, it's just that I am of an age to have known the original Mary.

'Suddenly Susan'

Who: Brooke Shields and Judd Nelson

When: 9: 30 tonight

Where: WBAL-TV (Channel 11)

Pub Date: 9/19/96

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