'Arsenio' joins sitcom crowd Preview: The comic plays a newly married guy trying to figure out the matrimony thing. So far, there's not much there except potential.

March 05, 1997|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Hey, here's a new idea for a sitcom scene: Two guys are sitting in a bar after one of them has had a fight with the missus. They are trying to figure out what it is those darn gals want anyway. And the more they talk, the more wrong they get. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.

Carbon date this premise and you'll find that it first appeared on the wall of the tomb of a failed Egyptian comedy writer of the XXII Dynasty.

From the looks of the pilot and all the reports of backstage battles involved in its making, ABC might soon be trying to forget about the big bucks it has tied up in the sitcom "Arsenio" that debuts tonight.

The polite thing to say about the show is that Arsenio Hall, the star, deserves better material. But who's to blame except Arsenio Hall, the executive producer, who recently fired his co-executive producer.

Hall, best known for his late-night work as host of the "Arsenio Hall Show," plays Michael Atwood, a 37-year-old anchorman for an all-sports cable channel in Atlanta. After years of being deeply in touch with his "inner bachelor," Atwood has recently tied the knot with a beautiful and intelligent Harvard-educated attorney named Vivian (played by Vivica A. Fox of "Independence Day").

Along with the bride, comes her younger brother (Alimi Ballard), who also has a Harvard degree but none of his sister's appetite for hard work. Yes, it is another refreshingly original sitcom concept: the freeloading brother-in-law.

The trouble starts tonight when Vivian does not get the promotion she expected at her law firm and Michael foolishly takes her at her word when she says she just wants to be left alone. That's how he winds up in a sports bar, drinking beer with his co-anchor (Al O'Brien) and getting it all wrong about women.

But, while there is precious little that's original, and the laughs are few and far between, it is too soon to write off 'Arsenio."

First of all, consider Hall's talent. He is an outstanding stand-up comedian, and, if the popular press wasn't so overloaded with baby boomer critics who think loving David Letterman makes them cool, Hall would have received the praise he deserved for running a talk show that brought new voices to television.

The problem with the pilot for "Arsenio" is that Hall seems intimidated by the sitcom format. He's too tentative both in his speech and physical movement. He seems boxed in. He and the other producers need to find a way to let him tear into a few extended comic riffs every now and then in which the persona of Arsenio-on-a-roll merges with that of Michael Atwood.

The other reason not to write the show off is that it is one of the few sitcoms on any of the four major networks with African-American characters who are middle to upper-middle-class.

Research on "The Cosby Show," done by University of Massachusetts professors found that one of the strongest attractions of that hit show for many black viewers was the

affluence of the Huxtable family. After decades of seeing only underclass images on the screen, middle-class black viewers connected deeply with characters who reflected their experience, according to the research. "Arsenio" could have the same sort of sociological appeal.

In the end, will Hall's talent and Atwood's social class be enough to save "Arsenio"?

Probably not, unless they get some new ideas and inspired writing for the next five episodes of this six-week tryout.

Still, it is one of the few questions connected with any of the mid-season replacement series premiering this week that is even worth thinking about.

'Arsenio'

Airs at 9: 30 tonight on WMAR (Channel 2).

Pub Date: 3/05/97

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