`Undeclared' a hit that goes without saying

September 25, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

It's not as freaky nor quite as geeky, but if you loved the short-lived Freaks and Geeks, I think you're going to find a home Tuesday nights on Fox this fall with Undeclared.

The new series from Judd Apatow, who created Freaks and Geeks, offers a smart, sensitive and funny look at the first year of college life for a group of freshmen living on the same dormitory floor at the fictitious University of North Eastern California.

While the series offers a strong ensemble cast of young actors, the best is Jay Baruchel as Steve Karp, a skinny kid who grew a few inches over the summer, got a new haircut and thinks he might have a shot at finding love when he hits campus. Except, there are a couple of drawbacks: his inexperience and his dad.

The dad thing is typical of the weird humor only a writer as gifted as Apatow could pull off. On the day Steve leaves for college, his mom tells his dad that she wants a divorce, and Steve can't get rid of his very needy dad (singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III), who follows him to campus.

I liked the first two episodes with Steve's dad hanging around a lot, but I loved episodes three and four as they settled into the routine of dorm life without so much dad.

Shows that deal this wisely with one of life's most important passages shouldn't be this funny. Each of the first four episodes gets better, and if that momentum continues, Fox could have a truly unique series here by the end of the television year.

The series premieres at 8:30 tonight on WBFF (Channel 45).

Repetitive scene disorder

Philly, the new legal drama starring Kim Delaney, is nothing we haven't seen before from Steven Bochco. The look and rhythm of the series - the urban montage opening and the breaks as each episode moves from wake up to bedtime as one day unfolds in the lives of the featured characters - is NYPD Blue transported to Philadelphia's criminal courts.

The most central character is Kathleen Maguire (Delaney), a divorced mom with a son in the 5th grade and a new career as a defense attorney. (She's 11 months into the job in her two-person firm).

She also has a physically abusive former husband (Kyle Secor), who happens to be Philadelphia's district attorney.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with Delaney or Secor as television actors, but when we see Delaney's partner bare her breasts in the courtroom as part of her closing argument in tonight's episode, it feels as though Bochco has repeated some storytelling tricks too many times for there to be any life left in them.

The series premieres at 10 tonight on WMAR (Channel 2).

Show still lacks the BAM!

The pilot for Emeril, the NBC sitcom starring chef Emeril Lagasse, was so savaged by critics that the network ordered up a whole new one from producers Linda Bloodworth and Harry Thomason (Designing Women). Their second try is even worse than the first.

This is a sitcom without a clue. NBC saw Lagasse's tremendous popularity as host of a cooking show and thought a sitcom with him as host of a cooking show would be a great idea.

But Lagasse is such a bad actor, he can't play himself, and the producers still are doing jokes for Designing Women, instead of Lagasse. Bloodworth and Thomason have tried to "fix" the series by surrounding Lagasse with a trio of women speaking the same kind of lines in the same accents as characters on Designing Women, only the material is now about decade out of date.

Free Emeril and let him go back to doing a real cooking show.

The series premieres at 8 tonight on WBAL (Channel 11).

A clueless series

I swear I have no idea what The Guardian is supposed to be about. But I don't think the producers or CBS do, either.

The premise has a hot-shot corporate lawyer (Simon Baker) getting busted for drugs. To stay out of jail, he must do pro bono work in a social services agency representing children. He hates it.

Yeah, and then what?

There is no then what. That's the pilot. Maybe CBS thinks Baker is such a hunk that women will watch. Maybe CBS is too caught up in reality programs like Survivor and forgot how to make a real drama.

The series premieres at 9 tonight on WJZ (Channel 13).

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