Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Fat Chance? No Way! 'Kirstie' Is an Unexpected Delight

Richards, Perlman, Alley, Petersen: a new Fantastic Four? (TV Land)
I had a great lead already written: "TV Land is the place where old TV sitcoms go to live, but Kirstie proves it's also where old sitcom stars go to die."

I liked the line too much not to use it, even though now it has absolutely no basis in fact.

I was soo prepared to dislike Kirstie Alley's new comedy, premiering at 10 p.m. EST Wednesday (Dec. 4, 2013) on TV Land with back-to-back, half-hour episodes. I had my barbs sharpened and ready to skewer. I can't begin to describe how deep a crush I had on Alley as Rebecca Howe on Cheers, and her self-destructive lifestyle choices in the years since repeatedly broke this distant admirer's heart. I was upset with her former Cheers co-star, Rhea Perlman, for splitting up with that delightful little Danny DeVito. (Even though they eventually got back together, you know how we feel about celebrity breakups!) And, as an African-American gentleman, I can forgive Michael Richards but never forget his infamous L.A. nightclub meltdown, now eight years past.

Foolish, foolish me. All those imbroglios are part of their personal lives and have nothing to do with their highly evolved television skills or note-perfect comedic timing. As an objective reviewer rather than a fuming fan, I should have known that TV Land, which has become a player in the original sitcom game through its formula of placing beloved stars from old shows in new roles with hits like Hot in Cleveland and The Exes, wasn't about to derail its momentum by adding a series with players ready for the retirement village.

Most of all, I could have predicted that executive producer Marco Pennette, the man who graced our eyeballs with such comedic pearls as Desperate Housewives and Ugly Betty, wasn't likely to start gambling with his reputation at this juncture. Pennette wrote the pilot himself, and while it's no Modern Family, really people, what is? When a cast of seasoned pros sink their chops into a well-written script, the results can be downright stunning. Kirstie sparkles with wit and style that, quite honestly, I wasn't prepared for. It's surprisingly good.

Alley plays Madison (Maddie) Banks, a veteran, self-consumed Broadway diva whose intimate circle consists only of her prickly personal assistant, Thelma (Perlman), and her shady driver, Frank (Richards) – people she pays to be her friends. That tidy, tiny world is torn asunder when wide-eyed twentysomething Jersey boy Arlo Barth (fresh face Eric Petersen), the infant Banks gave up for adoption as a young ingenue, arrives unannounced at her door to meet his bio-mon. "That kid who came in with her?" Frank exclaims. "He came out of her!"

Granted, Arlo seems a bit too aw-shucks and unsophisticated for a guy who lived right over the bridge in New Jersey. ("You have a personal chef, a driver and an assistant? You're like a white Oprah!") And there's no telling how long his gee-whiz persona will play as believable before he inevitably becomes jaded and conceited like all celebrity children. But for the first month of episodes, at least, the one-trick pony of Kirstie's storyline performs admirably. The second episode, written by Mark Driscoll, doesn't appear to lose a step of Pennette's brisk opening pace.

Plus, Perlman's Thelma is cutting but not as caustic as Carla Tortelli, and Richards' Frank bumbles but isn't as spastic as Cosmo Kramer. They're not mimicking their former timeless characters, but they are who they are: there's enough of their essence left to appreciate them in their current roles.

As for Alley, seeing her in a straight 30-minute comedy again for me is like seeing an old flame after many years; though the flame may have extinguished, after not too many minutes you remember why it burned for her in the first place. And she'll be supported not only by Perlman and Richards, but also by a constant stream of guest stars: one of my favorite actors on earth, Christopher McDonald (still miss Tommy Jefferson on Harry's Law, Chris) appears in the pilot as the haughty leading man in Maddie's new hit play, and that disarming pixie Kristin Chenoweth arrives in episode two as her catty understudy.

Cloris Leachman shows up for the first holiday escapade, and George Wendt, Jason Alexander, Kathy Griffin, The Exes' Kristin Johnston – even John Travolta – will be guesting in weeks to come. But they're just window dressing. You don't need a cavalcade of stars to send up any Cheers for this show. Kirstie can stand on its own.

On a scale of 10: Kirstie – 7 clicks.

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