'Hi Honey, I'm Home' misuses a nice gimmick for a sitcom


BOY, YOU can just imagine the story conference that created "Hi Honey, I'm Home," a novelty sitcom premiering on ABC tonight (at 9:30, Channel 13), and being shown again in a precedent-setting collaboration on the Nick at Nite cable network (at 8:30 and 11 p.m. Sunday):

"What if this '50s TV family, see, like from 'Leave It To Beaver' or 'Father Knows Best,' suddenly gets stuck in the '90s?" goes one writer.

"Yeah, yeah," goes another, "and their neighbors are a typical sitcom family today -- you know, single mother, smart-mouth sexed-up teen-ager, punk little brother."

"Great idea! We can have them say 'boobs' and 'condom' and get a lot of laughs."

Well, there is a clever idea here, but tonight's premiere does not realize it very well. And except for a nice surprise cameo appearance at close (which should not be revealed here), there are very few laughs.

Instead, we get lame tight sweater jokes, sexism jokes and even an abortion joke. (The '90s mom asks the '50s mom to sign a "pro-choice petition," and she replies innocently, "choose what?")

The theme song tells you the premise, showing monochromatic scenes of a fictional '50s sitcom family, the Nielsens (heh-heh), .. singing: "We were once a sitcom family, on your black and white TV. Now we're off the air, been pulled from there and dropped into reality."

The trouble is, '90s sitcom reality is no more real than the '50s kind. And while farcical spoofing of both eras is the obvious intent of "Hi Honey, I'm Home," the result seems more like a cynical, simplistic insult to both then and now.

It also seems suspiciously reminiscent of (but not as funny as) "The Charmings," a short-lived series a few years back in which Prince Charming and Snow White found themselves in present-day America.

In one sense, of course, this is the perfect TV vehicle, for its only real substance is TV itself. And it is no surprise that ABC's first cooperative effort on a cable series is with Nick at Nite, the prime-time service of the Nickelodeon children's channel. Nick at Nite has had astonishing success merely re-running older TV series, from "The Donna Reed Show" to "Green Acres."

This collaboration will last six weeks, with both ABC and Nick airing the same episodes. Another seven shows are in production, and a Nick at Nite spokesman says it remains to be decided which network will carry those, depending on public response. The show is not on ABC's fall schedule.

Tonight's premiere episode opens with teen Mike Duff (Pete Benson) as a couch potato viewing his favorite rerun, "Hi Honey, I'm Home." He's upset when an announcement says the show is going off the air.

But when his phone installer mother (Susan Cella) drags him and his little brother (Eric Kushnick) next door to meet new neighbors, he seems to recognize them -- especially the tight-sweatered daughter Babs (Julie Benz).

Sitcom mother Honey (Charlotte Booker), pipe-smoking, bow-tied dad Lloyd (Stephen Bradbury) and fat son Chuckie (Danny Gura) are the rest of the family. It seems whenever their show is not airing, they and all other canceled series characters have to live in the here and now.

" 'My Mother the Car' is in Cleveland . . . and one of us even got elected president," notes Honey, who also confides she sometimes wonders whether she should have married Jim Anderson (the father of "Father Knows Best").

The inside TV references and cross-cultural conflicts are wholly predictable. The '90s woman is appalled at the '50s mother's subservience, yet admires her family stability. The '50s family has trouble accepting muggers, convenience foods, "manless" career women and homeless people -- yet their simpler values allow them to invite the neighborhood wanderer into the house for dinner.

In a cute technical gimmick, the Nielsens are in black and white when home alone, but use a device called a "Turnerizer" to color themselves when in the company of others. One neat shot, for example, shows the Duff boy coming up the walk to visit. Seen through the doorway, he's in color with green trees behind, while the people inside are all in mono.

"Hi Honey, I'm Home"

* A '90s family in New Jersey has to adjust to new neighbors: a '50s sitcom family.

TIME: 9:30 tonight, ABC/Channel 13; and 8:30 and 11 p.m. Sunday on cable's Nick at Nite.

CAST: Susan Cella, Pete Benson, Erick Kushnick, Charlotte Booker, Stephen Bradbury, Julie Benz, Danny Gura.

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