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CBS' 'High Society' is risque but is not 'Absolutely Fabulous'


Broadly acted and twice as broadly written, "High Society" (9:30 p.m.-10 p.m., WJZ, Channel 13) spills its humor all over itself and then asks viewers to pay the dry-cleaning bill.

OK, just this once. Or maybe twice. Here's a sitcom that succeeds -- sort of -- despite its many gross excesses. Credit goes to lead actresses Jean Smart ("Designing Women") and Mary McDonnell ("Dances With Wolves"), who respectively throw themselves into the roles of a New York-based trash novelist and her best-friend publisher. "Absolutely Fabulous"? Hardly. Derivative of "Absolutely Fabulous" ("Ab Fab"), the impolite, imported British comedy? Absolutely.

"It's sort of like Noel Coward on amphetamines," Ms. Smart says by telephone. "I think the broader we do it, the more we can get away with. If you can see that all the characters are just slightly skewed, a little bent, then you can forgive them a little bit more."

She's more or less right, although tonight's premiere episode telegraphs far too many punch lines to be considered Cowardesque. The biggest offender is a scene in which Ellie Waters (Ms. Smart) bursts in to discover Dorothy "Dott" Emerson (Ms. McDonnell) with wine in hand.

"Look at you, sitting there drinking alone. It's pathetic," Ellie scolds. Ba-dum-bum. "Pour me a glass."

The vices of the two lead characters -- add smoking, sleeping around and sashaying -- are tempered by the arrival of their plain, plump college pal, Valerie Brumberg (Faith Prince).

Risque, neon-lit lines obviously are going to be the show's stock-in-trade. Replacing the canceled "If Not For You" in the post-"Murphy Brown" slot, "High Society" resembles an overmuscled power hitter swinging full-out for the fences on every pitch. Every once in a while, a fly ball finds the bleachers.

As when Dott's conservative-minded son, Brendan, says of Ellie: "She drinks too much. She ought to be in rehab."

To which Mom replies: "Oh, that's not going to happen. The woman thinks 12-stepping is a country dance."

Ms. Smart and Ms. McDonnell are if nothing else vigorous in their portrayals. In time, their talents might succeed in making "High Society" a good deal of outrageous fun. The first episode certainly won't go quietly into the night. It gets up on its high heels and promenades from start to finish.

You won't have any trouble hearing it. At times, though, you might not believe your ears.

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