Locklear helps `LAX' go for the dark laughs

FallTV

September 13, 2004|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

If nothing else, the pilot for LAX proves one thing: Heather Locklear does romantic comedy as well as anyone on television this side of Debra Messing in Will & Grace.

But, while that was perfect for her role in ABC's Spin City sitcom, is that a good thing given that her new NBC series about backstage life at Los Angeles International Airport is supposed to be a drama - particularly, a drama that opens with the suicide of the airport manager in the series premiere (tonight at 10 on WBAL , Channel 11)?

Improbably, the answer is yes - well, make that a qualified yes. Think of LAX as light drama intended to be a suitably escapist companion to NBC's Las Vegas series on Monday nights, and you understand that the network is not looking for Locklear to be Lady Macbeth.

The model here is more along the lines of Cybill Shepherd's Maddie Hayes in ABC's Moonlighting (1985-89). Sexy, headstrong and more than capable of standing love-hate-love-hate, toe-to-toe with her leading man, Locklear as airfield chief Harley Random carries the hour.

Furthermore, Blair Underwood, while he's no Bruce Willis, does manage to hold his own as terminal manager Roger De Souza, Random's colleague, sparring partner and one-time lover. The opening suicide - with the manager standing on a runway late at night in the very spot on which a 747 jumbo jet is about to land - sets up tonight's central story line with Random and De Souza battling to become his successor.

The tone for the suicide and the ensuing grab for power is intended to be offbeat and darkly comic, but it's a very tough tone to hit. Think of LAX as kind of darkly comic - what white chocolate is to Hershey's cooking chocolate.

That is Locklear's metier - a little deeper and darker than standard network-sitcom humor, but not so deep or dark as to scare anyone into thinking existential thoughts. Better to keep the viewer's mind on how great Locklear looks.

Will she, with a bit of help from Underwood, be enough to make LAX fly? Only if the producers do a better job of figuring out what notes they want to hit and then staying within that range. They are all over the place tonight.

While they do manage one touching moment with Random and De Souza taking a break from their bickering long enough to witness the arrival of a plane from China filled with recently adopted infants and their new parents, there are far too many just-plain-stupid, goofball moments.

LAX needs to settle down and find a comfortable voice, one with less Love Boat and more of the oddball Moonlighting sensibility. That is not an easy task. But there is already a lot to like in LAX with Locklear.

`The Benefactor'

ABC almost got it right. In the wake of the phenomenal success of NBC's The Apprentice last spring, the Disney-owned network wanted a reality TV series with a rich guy, too.

They got a rich guy in Mark Cuban, the billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team. Unfortunately, by the standards of prime-time television, he's a stiff.

Donald Trump might be an obnoxious phony with bad hair, but when viewers see him on the small screen, they tend to react with admiration or disgust. That makes for compelling TV.

This is not the case with Cuban or the show's game. Sixteen contestants arrive via limousine at a Dallas mansion hoping to be the one who walks away with $1 million from Cuban. But, first, they have to undergo a series of tests, one of which includes an interview tonight with Cuban. That might not sound like much of a test, but The Benefactor is not much of a show.

Forget the contestants; any viewer who can last longer than 15 minutes looking at Cuban with the same unchanging, stupid-looking grin on his face deserves the million-dollar prize.

Who ever thought that saying someone is no Donald Trump would be a criticism?

LAX

When: Tonight at 10

Where: WBAL (Channel 11)

In brief: Heather Locklear brightens an uneven airport drama.

Benefactor

When: Tonight at 8

Where: WMAR (Channel 2)

In brief: The show that proves being rich is not enough -- even for reality TV.

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