Charm joins NBC's lineup


Thursday night on NBC has become a viewing ritual for more than 20 million Americans. Tonight, those viewers meet the two new series responsible for a big change in one of their most pleasurable television routines.

For more than a decade, Thursday has meant hot sitcoms, huge ratings, big bucks and, on more than one occasion, a rocket ride to No. 1 in prime time for NBC.

Moreover, sitcoms airing on this night -- everything from "The Cosby Show" and "Cheers" to "Seinfeld" and "Friends" -- have provided NBC with its corporate identity, the image viewers have of the Peacock network. Thanks to those signature sitcoms, that image involves being smart, sophisticated, funny, young adult and urban -- all of which makes for an extremely advertiser-friendly environment, to use the language of Madison Avenue.

That is why the debuts tonight of "The Single Guy" and "Caroline in the City" constitute two of the more important events of the new television season.

"The Single Guy," which will premiere at 8:30 on WBAL (Channel 11), is sandwiched between "Friends" and "Seinfeld." "Caroline in the City," which will premiere at 9:30, is packaged between "Seinfeld" and "ER."

The three returning shows are the crown jewels at NBC, as if anyone needed me to point that out. But to make room for the new series, NBC had to move "Mad About You," another hit show, to Sundays, where it might just get chewed up by CBS' "Cybill" and Fox's "The Simpsons."

The question of the day: Are "The Single Guy" and "Caroline in the City" worth it?

The answer is a qualified yes.

It's a start

Neither "The Single Guy" nor "Caroline" are great sitcoms or laugh riots, but they are likable. And, if you think back to the first episode of "Mad About You" or "Friends," neither was filled with big laughs, either.

Furthermore, both of the new sitcoms have something that not even "Seinfeld" has: a quiet kind of charm. In the pilots, it's more charm-promised than charm-realized. But any kind of charm amid the clutter of loud, braying, obnoxious new sitcoms is something to be treasured.

"The Single Guy," starring Jonathan Silverman ("Brighton Beach Memoirs") as a young novelist named Johnny Elliot, is built around relationships; one relationship in particular -- marriage.

The likable Elliot, who lives in Manhattan, is the target of almost everyone's attempt to get him married. Tonight, his best friend and sister have each lined up women for him to meet. Finding a mate for Johnny seems to be the part-time job of almost everyone he knows.

A theme of the pilot is that being single is like having a torn artery -- immediate action is required. But the actions taken tonight by Johnny's friends result in disaster rather than romance.

Sophisticated dialogue

"Caroline," starring Lea Thompson ("Back to the Future"), features another 30-ish, single, self-employed artist living in Manhattan. Caroline Duffy (Thompson) is a syndicated cartoonist whose "Caroline" strip is often confused with "Cathy."

Outside of the strip, most of her life is spent trying to pull the loose ends of her life together. Tonight, she's trying to come to terms with a relationship she just ended, as well as hiring a new assistant. The lines get crossed and barbs are tossed in fancy restaurants, hip Manhattan offices and Caroline's apartment.

The producers say they wanted to create a series about a "quirky, engaging, flawed and honest" woman. They've succeeded on that count, as well as serving up some of the most sophisticated dialogue in prime time. When Caroline's old boyfriend shows up with a new date at "their" restaurant -- the very place that Caroline happens to have been headed with her new boyfriend -- Caroline decides, "This whole thing is just too Noel Coward for me."

You don't hear Noel Coward used much in prime-time punch lines these days.

In fact, one of the most encouraging things about these two sitcoms is how many punch lines refer to books, authors and other forms of popular culture more high-end than video games or cartoons. If you don't know who Ernest Hemingway was, or have some sense of the tone of Time magazine, you probably won't get at least a half-dozen jokes connected with an obnoxious name-dropper whom Johnny has been fixed up with in "The Single Guy" tonight.

Come to think of it, when was the last time we had a sitcom's star character who could be described as a young, hip novelist? Both these shows are not only refreshingly literate, but they also have a rare respect for the written word as it appears in books (Johnny's medium) and newspapers (the medium for Caroline's strip).

That's enough cause to lay on a bit of praise. But the reason for that praise might also be the cause of these shows getting buried by some viewers.

For "Caroline" and "The Single Guy" to succeed on NBC Thursday nights, they need to achieve mass audience ratings -- primarily, an audience of adults in their 20s and 30s.

Will enough members of that audience get the Noel Coward and Ernest Hemingway references? If they don't, will they still stay with the series? Or will they tune out NBC for such shows as Fox's "The Crew" or ABC's "Monroes," which give new meaning to the term "dumb-down"?

Here's hoping, because if they do it will say something encouraging about that audience and the possibility that a bit of charm, literacy and wit can still survive in the world of network sitcoms.

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