A black, male version of white bread Mary Richards?
That's exactly who David Preston (David Alan Grier), of the new Fox sitcom "The Preston Episodes," is supposed to be. If you don't believe me now, you will by the time tonight's premiere episode ends -- with Grier running onto a city street and throwing his hat in the air while the "Mary Tyler Moore Show" theme song plays and the lyrics say, "You might just make it on your own."
Only instead of the show ending on the upbeat image of the hat soaring skyward, the camera follows it down into the handsof a homeless man, who refuses to return it to Preston. By the time the two start wrestling for the hat, there's not much doubt that "The Preston Episodes" is a very postmodern version of Mary -- a sitcom that both pays homage to and mocks its model, with intelligence and humor.
"The Preston Episodes," premiering at 8:30 tonight on WBFF (Channel 45), is easy to like. The main reason for that is Grier, one of the most likable performers on television.
Grier, a Yale School of Drama graduate, earned a Tony nomination for his work in "The First," a Broadway play about Jackie Robinson. But he's probably best known to television viewers as Antoine Merriwether, of the "Men On . . ." sketches he did with Damon Wayans for Fox's "In Living Color."
In "The Preston Episodes," Grier plays a 37-year-old college college professor who decides to chuck the tweeds, move to New York City and become a writer.
But the only job he can get that even remotely involves his skills is writing photo captions for a mindless tabloid magazine staffed by burnouts, dropouts and the just plain weird. Clive Revill, who was last seen making love to Jessica Fletcher on "Murder She Wrote," plays the magazine's English-accented editor, who can think only in terms of celebrities and celebrity photo captions.
As a test, he gives Preston a photo of David Hasselhoff on stilts, and says, "Give me a caption."
"TV star towers above the ratings competition," Preston says, clearly pleased with himself.
"Rubbish," the editor snarls. "There's only one caption for that picture, and a crack writer would have gotten it immediately: Sexy Dave sexes up a pair of sex stilts."
Preston is a raw recruit in the world of celebrity news, and, like Mary, he's just so nice. Tossing him into this cesspool of sleaze and silliness is a great comic premise.
But great premises do not guarantee hit series. Grier, who is one of the show's executive producers, is going to have to fight the Fox impulse toward overkill on bathroom and bedroom humor.
In the pilot, for example, Preston's mother (Lynn Thigpen of "Where in the World in Carmen San Diego?"), a psychologist, tells him that the reason his marriage failed is that his ex-wife has the same shaped thighs and buttocks as she does. Did he ever think about that as his marriage was going sour, she asks pointedly.
Preston replies that he didn't -- and the viewer might not want to think about it, either.
Then, there's a neighbor (Tommy Hinkley), who keeps wandering in and out of Preston's apartment. The bathrobe-clad neighbor seems obsessed with mucous and rent money -- in that order.
But there's a ton of talent here. And perhaps even more important, the series has a good time period. Unlike Mary, David Preston won't have to make it on his own. "The Preston Episodes" has the hit show "Martin" as its lead-in.