Sitcom strives for perfection Preview: There may be a couple laughs in CBS' new 'Style & Substance,' but it's pretty light fare.

January 05, 1998|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

"Style & Substance" is a one-joke sitcom. And, while that joke does pack a few laughs, there is nothing funny at all about the sexism on which it is based.

The new sitcom from CBS stars Jean Smart as Chelsea Stevens, a "one-woman cooking, decorating and entertaining machine who thinks every crisis can be solved by a decorative centerpiece," to use the words of the network. Stevens runs a Connecticut-based empire that includes books, magazines, a television show and product endorsements.

Sound familiar?

Oh, my, aren't we clever. We got it: She's Martha Stewart, the queen of domestic perfection. That's half of the big joke.

The other half is that, once you get past the professional facade, Ms. Perfect Home and Garden is really a wreck -- a self-centered, emotionally challenged, obsessive control-freak whom nobody likes.

"Weirdmobile" is the term one of the other characters uses to describe her.

Or, as the press release for the show puts it, "Chelsea's 'personal touch' never carries over into her personal life. Chelsea doesn't get it -- she has no trouble whipping up a gourmet dinner for 12, but she doesn't know 12 people who would care to eat it with her."

Enter Jane (Nancy McKeon), a young producer who has just broken up with her fiance in Omaha and moved to New York in a job that finds her working for Chelsea.

Sound familiar?

Right again: It is the 10 millionth reincarnation of Mary Richards, down to the apartment Jane moves into. The only difference is that Jane moves east instead of west after her marriage plans go south. I kept waiting for Rhoda Morgenstern to walk in during the pilot.

But, alas, it is Chelsea that Jane reluctantly decides to bond with, in a manner of speaking, after they overcome their rocky start.

Again, lest I be accused of loading the dice against the series, I'll let CBS characterize their relationship: "Jane decides to make Chelsea her project, to make her more human. Meanwhile, Chelsea vows to make Jane a stronger, more confident person who says exactly what she thinks about everyone -- except Chelsea Stevens."

So, where's the sexism?

It's in the recurring premise that women who are professionally successful are somehow maimed in their personal lives.

It's there in Murphy Brown, Cybill, Caroline (Leah Thompson) of "Caroline in the City," Gwen Leonard (Sharon Lawrence) of "Fired Up," Roz (Peri Gilpin) of "Frasier" and on and on up and down the sitcom lineup of network television. The older the professional woman, the more maimed she is as a person.

I mean, maybe we can forgive ourselves for laughing at this stereotype back in the 1960s with Jane Hathaway (Nancy Kulp) on the "Beverly Hillbillies" or Sally Rogers (Rose Marie) on "The Dick Van Dyke Show," but this is more than 30 years later. Has anybody in Hollywood heard of the women's movement?

Granted, part of the intended appeal of "Style & Substance" is that, in laughing at the media-constructed Ms. Perfect, we feel better about our own real-life imperfections. That's fine; that's healthy humor. On a good day, it might even aspire to be intelligent social satire about how media create desire in us by presenting a false image of perfection.

But, culturally, there's nothing enlightened about the pattern of professional success/personal disaster for women on sitcoms in and this sitcom takes it to a new level.

Cultural messages aside, the pilot has its moments. Most of them are in the timing between McKeon and Smart. The two do play well against and with each other.

But I think, ultimately, Smart is miscast. She does fine in the private, coming-apart-at-the-seams stuff, but she seems incapable of projecting the capable, in-control, eyes-as-flat-as-ice, public persona of Stewart.

And, lest anyone take too much delight in thinking how embarrassed or angry Stewart must be about this public depiction, remember Stewart is under contract with CBS for its morning program as well as prime-time specials. She and CBS make lots of money for each other.

No matter what kind of statements are made to create publicity )) in the form of manufactured controversy for the series, I suspect Stewart and CBS are on the same page when it comes to "Style & Substance."

They both are long on the former and short on the latter.

New series

What: "Style & Substance"

When: 9: 30 tonight

Where: WJZ (Channel 13)

Pub Date: 1/05/98

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