UPN is counting on `Dilbert'

Television: Expectations are high for the much put-upon office worker

maybe to high

January 25, 1999|By DAVID ZURAWIK | DAVID ZURAWIK,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

PASADENA, Calif. -- The biggest problem with "Dilbert," the new UPN series based on the comic-strip satire of corporate life, is expectations.

The United Paramount Network lost almost one-half its audience in the last year after a disastrous fall lineup of flops, like "The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer," and "Dilbert" has been positioned as the show to stop the bleeding at UPN.

That is too much to ask of any new series. And, judged in that super-hit context, some are going to call "Dilbert" a disappointment.

But sit down tonight in front of the tube with more reasonable expectations, and you will find yourself smiling, if not laughing out loud at least once or twice. Executive producers Scott Adams, the creator of "Dilbert," and Larry Charles, one of the key producers of "Seinfeld," have done a solid job of translating the comic strip to the screen.

Maybe Dilbert (voiced by Daniel Stern), Dogbert (Chris Elliott), Alice (Kathy Griffin) and the others don't sound as fabulous on screen as they do in your head when you read the newspaper strip, but how could they? What we do with print in our own heads is almost always better than what happens when Hollywood translates it to the screen. In fact, lose that edge in personal imagination, and we really will be a doomed television culture.

The writing by Adams and Charles starts clever and stays funny in tonight's pilot.

The first words out of Dilbert's mouth are addressed to Dogbert, who's standing at the side of his bed buzzing like an alarm as the clock says 6 a.m.

"I thought you said you were going to wake me at 6: 30," Dilbert says snappishly.

"I also said women like men who are shaped like potatoes. Can you find the pattern here?" Dogbert says in a superior tone.

"I had the egg dream again last night," Dilbert says, sounding worried.

"I, I, I," Dogbert replies.

"What do you think an egg dream means?" Dilbert presses.

"It's an omen," Dogbert says.

"A good omen?" Dilbert asks.

"How many good omens involve things that come out of a chicken's [behind]?" Dogbert says rhetorically as he strolls away.

The egg dream is not a good omen. At work, Dilbert tells Alice that he's had the dream again.

"Old John Cooper had that dream just before he turned into the chicken man," she says, referring to a former fellow engineer. She further explains that Cooper's troubles started after he was put in charge of a project by the pointy-haired boss (Larry Miller).

Sure enough, it's not long before Dilbert is put in charge of a project by the boss as punishment for speaking the truth at a staff meeting. The meeting was called because the flagship product of the faceless corporation for which Dilbert works is a disaster.

The product, a throat lozenge, does make throats feel cool and moist rather than hot and scratchy -- just as advertised. Unfortunately, it also kills anyone who puts it in his or her mouth.

Adams and Charles pack a lot into this first half hour. There's Dilbert playing Scrabble with Dogbert and Dilmom (Jackie Hoffman), forming such words as "it" and being mocked for his "poor verbal skills." Dilmom is especially rough on her son, dancing a jig on the table every time she outscores him -- which happens with every word she forms.

Then there's another staff meeting -- this one chaired by Dogbert, who is called in as an executive consultant when Dilbert can't come up with a name for the yet-to-be-designed product that is supposed to save the company.

"As you probably know, all the good product names have been marketed by companies that are competent," Dogbert says.

"Competent?" Dilbert's co-worker Wally (Gordon Hunt) screams, "That's not fair. How can we compete with that?"

"Dilbert" is a smart series from a network that has seemed decidedly short on brainpower lately. That seems like a good omen.

But it should also be noted that "Dilbert" is fairly mainstream and middle-of-the-road in look and tone. That could be a bad omen in the sense that the core audience for animation tends to be younger and more interested in subject matter with an edge.

Also problematic could be the fact that "Dilbert" is going to be competing in coming weeks with a flock of prime-time animated series. And most of them are a lot further out there, such as "Family Guy" on Fox, which features an infant who speaks with an English accent and wants to rule the world.

One good omen and two bad ones. Can you find the pattern here?

I hope "Dilbert" makes it. But don't expect a hit. Survival for this deserving series would be enough. Lower those expectations.

New series

What: "Dilbert"

When: 8 to 8: 30 tonight

Where: UPN (WUTB, Channel 24)

Pub Date: 1/25/99

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