Lane's sitcom just a bit too punchy TV's new season: 'Encore! Encore!' has a long way to go before it matches the quality of its stars.

September 22, 1998|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Who says television dumbs down great talent?

NBC has a new sitcom, "Encore! Encore!" premiering tonight that stars Nathan Lane (Tony Award for "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum"), with Joan Plowright (Tony Award for "A Taste of Honey") as his mother.

Twice in the pilot, Lane's character reaches out to greet his mother with a hug, and she responds by smacking him on the side of the head so hard he falls to the floor.

Anne Schedeen as Kate Tanner smacking ALF on the side of the head on "ALF," or Mark Linn-Baker smacking Cousin Balki (Bronson Pinchot) on "Perfect Strangers," that makes sense. But two great stage and film actors in Lane and Plowright, and they can't think of a better way to get laughs?

Actually, there are some laughs in "Encore! Encore!" that you don't have to be ashamed of. It would be hard not to get a few with Lane in practically every frame of the pilot and a creative team that includes David Angell, Peter Casey and David Lee, who have been involved with the likes of "Cheers" and "Frasier."

Lane plays an opera star -- Joe Pinoni, known as the Fourth Tenor -- who suffers a vocal injury and is forced to return to the modest family-owned winery in Napa Valley. Glenne Headly plays his tightly wrapped sister, Francesca, who is now running the winery along with their mother, Marie (Plowright). Yes, indeed, there is a lot of talent here.

Joe, a puffed-up prima donna who has squandered his money but not his taste for the good life, is a fish out of water in the quiet Napa Valley and middle-class lifestyle of the Pinoni home. He struts, poses and pouts as he tries to come to terms with the fact that at 40 years of age his career is over and he's no longer a star.

As he puts it: "From now on, I'm going to be ordinary -- just ordinary Joe. Howdy, neighbor. Hot enough for you? Are those new tires? What do you say we all put on our sweats, make some popcorn and watch TV? (Pause) Please hand me a revolver."

Most of the laughs come from watching Lane bounce around the set, a roly-poly bundle of manic energy with a look of bemused superiority on his face, firing off insults at the family members on whose kindness he must now depend.

The problem is the half-hour is nothing if not uneven, and you wonder how Lane is going to manage to maintain that level of energy for 22 episodes.

"Encore! Encore!" has tremendous potential, but the producers are already having trouble hitting their marks. The pilot came in late, because Plowright and Lane were off making movies. This is a series that could run into big star problems fast, and that is something NBC can't afford. "Encore! Encore!" is key to its Tuesday night strategy, taking over the "Frasier" time slot between "Mad About You," which is in considerable decline, and "Just Shoot Me."

NBC is promoting "Encore! Encore!" as a "sophisticated comedy." There's no doubt that is what it wants to be. But it is at least still two full head-slaps away. ** 1/2

Quick takes

Quick-hit guide to new series premiering tonight:

**** Must-see. *** Has promise. ** Worth a look. * Forget about it.

"The Hughleys" ** (ABC) -- Comedian D. L. Hughley plays a young black businessman who moves his family to the suburbs and then finds himself having a hard time adjusting to his neighbors. It's one of two new sitcoms with the theme of blacks moving into white neighborhoods this fall -- the other is "Living in Captivity" on Fox.

Of the two, this is the better one, but that's not saying much. Chris Rock is the executive producer of "The Hughleys," and a lot has been made of that by some. But Rock's involvement is minimal. His producer's credit comes mainly from bringing Hughley to the attention of ABC. The series shows no signs of Rock's brilliance. (8: 30 p.m. to 9 p.m., WMAR, Channel 2)

"Sports Night" ** 1/2 (ABC) -- Baltimore's Josh Charles ("Dead Poets Society") co-stars in the workplace sitcom about a nightly sportscast just like the one on ESPN.

Is this synergy or what -- with both ABC and ESPN owned by Disney? Clever and crisp dialogue, interesting characters, but I hate the values it's selling: the workplace celebrated as the most important thing in life. The work done in your workplace, guys, is reading sports scores, not cancer research. But, again, I stand in awe of the cross-promoting value of the Disney-owned sitcom. (9: 30 p.m. to 10 p.m., WMAR, Channel 2)

TV's new season

What: "Encore! Encore!"

When: 8: 30 to 9 tonight

Where: NBC (WBAL, Channel 11)

Pub Date: 9/22/98

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