'Home Improvement' is great and 'Sibs' ought to be


HOME Improvement" has the funniest pilot of the new TV season, but its time period could squelch a few laughs in future episodes.

This new ABC show, which premieres tonight at 8:30 on Channel 13 (WJZ), is a showcase for comedian Tim Allen, whose stand-up routine focuses on the odd relationship between masculinity and power tools.

"Home Improvement" gives Allen's character of Tim Taylor his own home fix-up show in which he gets to dispense handyman wisdom and do-it-yourself tips.

Then the cameras follow Taylor home where his desire to re-create the world along the lines of his ridiculous macho vision run afoul, not only of the laws of physics and gravity, but also of his wife Jill, who is quick with the ego-deflating line. Jill is excellently played by Patricia Richardson.

Tonight's opener has the domestic story framed by bits from the handyman show. When Taylor gets home from the studio, he finds a wife who is off to a job interview -- leaving Mr. Macho to baby-sit their three young sons -- and a dishwasher that is just begging for a shot of testosterone if it's really going to get those plates shining.

Bottom line is that this is one hilarious half hour. Probably a half dozen laugh-out-loud side-busters and a couple dozen chucklers. Even the obvious jokes are so well-timed they get a laugh.

The actions of Tim Taylor are at once absurd and yet provide some insight into the male persona. And Allen makes him constantly likable -- even when he's acting like a jerk, you know that he's just a misguided nice guy.

That's the good news. The bad news is that instead of putting this show where it belongs -- at 9:30 right after "Roseanne," replacing the tepid "Coach" -- ABC put it on at 8:30 where its job is to hang onto the audience of the kiddie favorite "Full House."

Sure enough, next week's second episode -- the first made with this time slot in mind -- focuses on the youngest of the three sons, a certifiable Hollywood cute kid. The home improvement show within the show, which provides so many laughs tonight, hardly makes it to the screen. And everything is played much more over the top, as if designed to appeal to a 10-year-old sense of humor.

There's even a genuine touching moment -- complete with "aaahs" from the audience -- a weekly lesson in life. Yuck! If "Home Improvement" can get back to stuff like the jokes it gets so many laughs out of tonight, we're talking a classic comedy. But if it forgets Allen's tremendous talents and focuses on the cuteness, it will just build a boring three-bedroom rancher on top of this promising foundation.

* "Sibs" is an advertisement for why they should make pilots for shows. ABC didn't require one for this because it has a multi-show deal with its classy executive producer James Brooks, ("The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "Taxi," "The Simpsons") and his colleague Sam Simon, ("Cheers," "Taxi," "The Simpsons') and they were understandably high on "Sibs'" creator, Heidi Perlman ("Cheers," "The Tracey Ullman Show").

You give those people a cast headlined by Marsha Mason and featuring Alex Rocco, Jamie Gertz and Margaret Colin and you figure you're in good shape.

Well, tonight's first episode -- which airs at 9:30 on Channel 13 (WJZ) -- is a mess. However, it is not a hopeless cause. There are good moments here, nice characterizations there, a funny idea over on the side somewhere. If a pilot had been made last spring, this could have been fixed up before it made it to the air.

Mason is Nora, the eldest of three sisters. She's married to Howie, played by Rocco. Her siblings are the effusive, self-obsessed Lily (Gertz) and the intense ex-addict Audie (Colin). In the opener, Nora's boss dies and, prodded by Howie, she decides to quit her job rather than work for his jerk of a nephew. Meanwhile, Lily's struggling artist of a boyfriend finally gets his big break and promptly dumps her.

You can tell that Perlman spent the last several seasons writing for Tracey Ullman's brilliant, under-appreciated Fox half hour. Many of the scenes in "Sibs" come off like one of the sketches in that show.

That means there's some funny stuff. The bad part is that it means too much of it is over the top and that the various sketches don't hang together as a whole show. Moreover, Mason seems out of place. Clearly a fine actress, she just can't deliver a line with the comedic brilliance of an Ullman.

Maybe some of this will be straightened out by the time "Sibs" settles into its Wednesday at 9:30 time slot next week. But they would have had months to fix it if they had made a pilot.

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