Soft 'Sunday Best' needs an edge


The promise from NBC executives was that that "Sunday Best" wouldn't be just a clip show, an hour filled with bits from other shows, a cheap and easy way to shore up a suicide time slot on Sunday night.

And when it showed up last night at 7 o'clock, you figured that was right. There was a logo so exactly like that of "60 Minutes" it sent you diving for the remote control, until you realized that it was Harry Shearer sitting there, not Mike Wallace.

And following that was an open with hip-hop graphics and music that felt as cutting edge as you're going to get. Throw in the post-modern sensibility of Merrill Markoe, a bit of pungency from Linda Ellerbee and the classic humor of host Carl Reiner, and, hey, this could be a fun way to celebrate TV -- of the past week and of the past half century -- every Sunday night.

An hour later, though, you realized that NBC had pretty much put a clip show on the air, a cheap and easy way to fill a suicide time slot.

Not that "Sunday Best" didn't have its moments. Shearer's opener was great and Markoe, who used to write for David Letterman's late night show, had fun at the weird and wonderful television carnival known as the National Association of Television Programming Executives convention, where everyone from the Internal Revenue Service to midget wrestlers is hawking TV shows.

But Shearer's bit later in the show -- he impersonated Harry Reasoner doing a "60 Minutes" story on a program designed to help astronauts re-enter the job market -- was one of those ideas that's better in concept than in realization. It dragged.

And young comic Jeff Cesario came off as too much of a nicguy type comic, not the on-the-edge type of humorist that a show like this needs.

Indeed, that was the problem with the whole show -- it's opening took you right to the edge, then it spent most of the rest of the hour backing away from it.

There did seem to be a lot of clips, too many in fact, both from

television's limitless past, such as scenes from the first "Bewitched" and "Mr. Ed" and a guest shot by Carol Burnett on "Get Smart," and from the previous week, mainly as seen on NBC. But part of the problem was that they weren't set up or combined imaginatively, just introduced and shown.

In fact, Linda Ellerbee's this-week-in-TV-history segment was little more than a bunch of clips from past shows with almost no chance for her pungent wit to get to the air, though a different type of contribution from Ellerbee is promised for next week.

One problem with the clips was that they reminded you how few cutting edge shows NBC has any more. A skit from "Saturday Night Live" on John McLaughlin's show was good, the "Cheers" clip was OK, but with Letterman and Johnny Carson reportedly refusing to cooperate, the pickings are pretty slim from the NBC lineup for a show like this.

Actually, the highlight last night was a clip from Fox's "The Simpsons" which, in fact, is not surprising because what "Sunday Best" is trying to do, clearly, is attract that Fox young adult audience. NBC can get away with this because its 8 o'clock hour of Jane Pauley's "Real Life" and "Expose" takes care of the network's Sunday public service commitment.

CBS' "60 Minutes" isn't getting those viewers, nor is ABC's "Life Goes On," at 7 o'clock. And Fox isn't getting much of its target audience with "True Colors," either.

Indeed, the executive producer of "Sunday Best" is one of the original architects of the Fox strategy, Garth Ancier, former head of programming for the fourth network.

But unless "Sunday Best" makes some pretty significant changes, it's not going to get those viewers, either. It's got to be quicker and wittier. Bits like the walk-ons by NBC stars George Wendt of "Cheers" and Park Overall of "Empty Nest" should be quick hits, not set-up segments.

It's got to be satirical, topical, political, irreverent, odd in its juxtapositions and even in its handedness when it comes to meting out praise and blame among the various networks and cable channels.

Come on Garth, think "Laugh In" for the '90s. Think "That Was the Week That Was." In other words, take some chances. Why not? NBC certainly has nothing to lose Sunday nights at 7.

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