Starting tonight, Wednesday is blue-collar night on ABC.
Using "Home Improvement" as an anchor, the network introduces two blue-collar sitcoms -- "Joe's Life," at 8:30, and "Grace Under Fire," at 9:30 on WJZ (Channel 13).
"Grace Under Fire" is the one that matters.
Like a half-dozen other new series this fall, "Grace" features a stand-up comic. She's Brett Butler, she swears that's her real name, she's Southern and she's funny.
Her character is named Grace Kelly, but there's nothing of the princess about her. She a thirtysomething single mom who just escaped from a physically abusive marriage and is trying to raise three kids -- ages 8, 5, and eight months -- on her own. She works at an oil refinery where she wears an honest-to-god hard fTC hat, just in case anyone in TV Land doesn't think this is a real blue-collar show.
The series breaks new ground for a sitcom in its frank discussion of a physically abusive marriage. And that past is going to continue to be very much a part of Grace's present throughout the season.
"I had two choices," she tells viewers in the opening of tonight's pilot. "I could continue to live with a knuckle-dragging, cousin-loving, beer-sucking redneck husband . . . or work like a dog for lousy pay and try to find a way to raise three kids alone. . . . It's nice to have choices."
As that quote suggests, "Grace Under Fire" is not exactly frothy. It's darker than "Roseanne," another blue-collar sitcom starring a stand-up comic -- which, by the way, is made by the same producers.
In fact, "Grace" starts out looking darker than any sitcom this side of "The John Larroquette Show." And the dark, existential humor of Larroquette's series is the secret of that show's unique appeal.
"Grace" is not at its best when it's dark. "Grace" is at its best when second banana Dave Thomas is on-camera.
Thomas, formerly of "SCTV," plays a recently divorced pharmacist who asks Grace out on a date in tonight's pilot.
Thomas balances Butler's head-banging sarcasm with a more gentle, ironic humor.
Some of the show's funniest moments come from their interplay -- especially when they verbally duel over who had the worse marriage.
"On the honeymoon, my ex-wife brought along her dog because she wanted something to play with," he says.
"On my honeymoon, my ex brought along his three brothers so I wouldn't have to cut bait all by myself," she counters.
The combination of Butler and Thomas, the producers from "Roseanne" and the time period following "Home Improvement" makes "Grace Under Fire" look like a sure-fire hit that will be gracing ABC's schedule for years to come.
1/2 (but I wouldn't argue with three).
Lifeless 'Joe's Life'
"Joe's Life" makes you wonder how such a talented star wound up in such a misguided project. The star is Peter Onorati, who spent the last couple of TV seasons as an attorney lusting after Mariel Hemingway in "Civil Wars." He was terrific.
In "Joe's Life," he plays Joe Gennaro, a laid-off worker in the aerospace industry having a midlife crisis. During the day, he's at home taking care of three kids. At night, he's working as a cook in his brother's restaurant. His wife is working days as a temp.
It's supposed to be a sitcom. It isn't even a little funny. Onorati looks lost.
"It's not just the job deal," Joe tells his wife when she asks him why he's so down in the dumps. "It's this whole Mr. Mom deal -- I just don't get it."
I don't get any sense that anyone at ABC knows what "Joe's Life" is supposed to be about.