Monday, March 15, 1999

Without help, new shows will be DOA

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        No matter how you spell it, it's a pain. John Larroquette's new Payne sitcom is painful to watch.

        Rescue 77, the WB drama starring Colerain Township native Marjorie Monaghan which also debuts today, isn't much better.

        Payne's problems comes from creating a sitcom with such an unlikable lead character. Think of California hotel owner Royal Payne (Mr. Larroquette) as Night Court's despicable Dan Fielding operating Newhart's old Stratford Inn.

        Perhaps Mr. Larroquette, who won four consecutive Emmys for best supporting actor on Night Court (1985-88), can't carry a show.

        Some will say the trouble is trying to remake Fawlty Towers, John Cleese's British comedyclassic.

        Comparisons are inevitable, since Mr. Larroquette acquired rights to Fawlty Towers before embarking on Payne with former Coach writers Judd Pillot and John Peaslee.

        Such comparisons may be meaningless, since many American viewers didn't see, or don't remember Mr. Cleese's original series. Only 12 episodes (six in 1975, another six in 1979) were made of the manic farce about nasty innkeeper Basil Fawlty.

        “Eighty-five percent of the people in America never heard of Fawlty Towers,” admits Mr. Larroquette in an interview.

        Even if you've never seen Fawlty Towers, you've heard that it was funny. Payne isn't. Something has been lost in the translation.

        Innkeeper Payne is tame, compared to Basil Fawlty, though he too likes to slap around his help, particularly Mohammed the bellhop (Rick Batalla) at the Whispering Pines hotel in Southern California.

        But the slapstick humor (looking for a diamond broach in customers' dinner plates) is too silly, and the one-joke plot too predictable (after a customer loses the broach, Payne gives it to his wife as an anniversary gift).

        Mr. Larroquette says lead characters had to be softened to make Payne appealing to U.S. viewers. Wife Connie (JoBeth Williams) also isn't as nasty as Fawlty's Prunella Scales.

        What's left for laughter is Payne forgetting his wedding anniversary (how original!) or relishing soaking a customer for stealing a robe. “Where else but America can you buy an $8 robe, slap a cheap label on it, and charge $75?” he says.

        Fans of the British show will note that the comic pace was changed for American TV. Fawlty Towers ran 35 minutes without interruption; Payne runs 22 minutes around commercials.

        “We had to sort of, in a way, dole out a little slower the maniacal nature of it, in order to keep people interested,” he says.

        Had they duplicated the crazy pace of Fawlty Towers, “we would be dead by the end of the season,” Mr. Larroquette said.

        It doesn't matter. Payne probably will be dead when the season ends in May.

        Another Payne airs 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, with the innkeeper and his wife eavesdropping on guests over hotel phones. It moves to 8 p.m. Wednesday on March 24. @subhed Throwback to the '70s @body:

        WB's Rescue 77 also is a throwback to the 1970s, when lightweight action-adventure series filled the airwaves.

        Unlike modern shows such as ER or Chicago Hope, which develop intriguing interpersonal relationships among passionate professionals, this new Aaron Spelling drama is filled with good old-fashioned TV cliches and superficial plots.

        Life-and-death rescues that make ER so riveting whiz by in minutes on Rescue 77. In the pilot, paramedics are called to an electrical explosion, domestic fight, plane wreck and a parking lot shooting. They still have time to play cards, rescue a cat from a tree and attend a nursing school graduation.

        It will be no surprise that the medic named “Wick Lobo” (Christian Kane) is a little crazy. He steals candy from co-workers and takes the greatest risks saving lives.

        And you don't need a GED to figure out that Kathleen Ryan (Ms. Monaghan from Babylon 5, Space Rangers and H.E.L.P.), just back from a six-week leave after an emotional breakdown, will succeed in saving the downed pilot. (Ms. Monaghan shines in the role; she just needs better material.)

        Perhaps only on a Spelling show would a husband run across — not around — the bed in which his wife is sleeping.

        Only on WB would all the victims be under 35, nearly fitting into the network's 18-34 demographic. But that target audience is too young to have seen The Rookies, Emergency, Adam 12 or The Mod Squad.

        Maybe they will be impressed with Rescue 77, down to its Melrose Place-like guitar theme. But I'm not. Only better writing and deeper characters can rescue this show.

        John Kiesewetter is Enquirer TV/radio critic. His column appears Monday and Wednesday. Write: 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202; fax: 768-8330.

        John Kiesewetter is Enquirer TV/radio critic. Write him at 312 Elm St., Cincinnati, 45202.