'SUNDAY DINNER': EAT OUT Critic finds show pretty skimpy fare


There is a reason Norman Lear's "Sunday Dinner" was not aired during the regular season this spring and did not find a spot on next fall's schedule: It's not very good.

It's also not the groundbreaking show Lear has tried to convince some folks it is. At a press conference in Los Angeles earlier this year, he said "Sunday Dinner" is a sitcom that celebrates spirituality -- the first regular TV series to deal with spiritual life.

It's a sitcom, but it's not very funny. And, though it does deal with spirituality, the show trivializes rather than celebrates it. As for his claim that this is a first, the subject has been handled in the cutesy, anthropomorphic way it's handled here in such programs as "The Flying Nun" and "Highway to Heaven."

The series, which premieres at 8 tonight on WBAL-TV (Channel 11), stars Robert Loggia as Ben Benedict, a 56-year-old widower who runs a Long Island printing business, and Teri Hatcher as TT Fagori, a 30-year-old attorney. Benedict and Fagori are in love and plan to be married, much to the confusion and outrage of his family.

Benedict's adult children, who still live at home, are Vicky (Martha Gehman), Diana (Kari Lizer) and Kenneth (Patrick Breen). Also sharing the Benedict home are Ben's sister, Martha (Marian Mercer), and Vicky's daughter, Rachel.

(Vicky is supposed to be a doctoral student at the Johns Hopkins University. When Lear was asked how someone who lives on Long Island goes to school in Baltimore, he said she commutes.)

The big deal in the series is that TT talks to God a lot in the pilot episode. Well, maybe not your God or my God, but a kind of Hollyowood God. She addresses him as "Chief."

At one point, when the Benedict siblings are really giving her a hard time, she ducks around a corner and says, "Chief, code blue. Code blue, Chief. I knew they'd be upset. But this is really getting to me. I know I'm supposed to be patient."

Then, after a pause, like maybe someone is talking to her, she says, "OK, I'll try. I'll really try." Then she goes back and tries to be nicer.

Some mythologists say we all imagine God in our own way. Tribes of hunters imagined God as the great hunter; agrarian societies imagined her as Mother Bountiful. This is God imagined as a Hollywood studio chief, kind of a benevolent Samuel Goldwyn or Jack Warner. The conversation between TT and this show-biz "chief" is as spiritual as Mork talking to Orson in "Mork and Mindy."

Hollywood is red hot for films and TV series that cash in on what sociologists see as a national search for spiritual values. Perhaps the best measure of "Sunday Dinner" is that despite this hunger, the program has no takers beyond six episodes, according to CBS.

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