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Midler brings fun back to comedy

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Just when you think the sitcom genre might finally have run out of gas, along comes Bette Midler in "Bette" to show how many more wild laughs, witty repostes and moments of keen cultural satire are left in the tank.

All it takes is the right driver, and Bette Midler goes pedal to the metal from the opening moments of tonight's premiere.

The CBS sitcom is a throwback to the backstage/on-stage comedies of the 1950s and 1960s, such as "The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show" or "The Jack Benny Show," in which show biz celebrities play themselves in a merger of the star's on-stage persona with a fictional world of neighbors, managers and family members.

Thus, Bette plays Bette, and what a delight she is. The sitcom opens with Bette having a bad case of backstage jitters and making everyone around her crazy just as her concert is supposed to start. Before the half-hour is over, we have Bette break-dancing, improvising a boogie-woogie-based rap number, singing Gershwin, throwing diva fits and hanging from an exercise device in her bedroom that looks like something out of an S&M; dungeon. The bedroom exercise scene is as out-of-control funny in its broad physical humor as the best moments of "I Love Lucy." In fact, no sitcom actress has ever reminded me as much of Lucille Ball as Bette does in "Bette."

But Lucy Ricardo never had lines like this: "Look, all the glamour of a leather bar without the two-drink minimum," Bette says over her shoulder to her husband as she climbs into the harness of the bedroom exercise contraption. The line is typical of the sitcom's tart and sassy style. The half-hour is filled with such lines.

Most of the best jokes are at Bette's own expense - or, at least, the expense of her persona. They start flying hot and heavy on Bette's first night at home after a long concert tour. As she's getting ready for bed, she starts to flirt with her husband, Roy (Kevin Dunn), saying, "I can't tell you how many nights on the road, I longed to look in your eyes and say, 'Darling, I'm hungry, I'm tired. Feed me, hold me, make me happy.' "

"Isn't that from 'The Rose?' " her husband asks.

"Nooooo," she insists.

"Yesssss," he replies. "You know that scene right after you call your mother and ..."

"OK, OK," she says. "You know, I was nominated for [an Oscar] for that. Sally Field, my ass."

But, by the time Bette comes to bed, Roy's asleep, snoring away as the television plays "Norma Rae" - the film for which Field won the Academy Award for best actress in 1980, defeating Bette.

The main story line in tonight's pilot is about Bette feeling old and unattractive. As she puts it with Grade-A Diva Denial: "I have to be brutally honest. I'm 35. I can't go on forever."

But story lines mean almost nothing in a sitcom like this. They're often nothing more than some piffle of a domestic disruption or misunderstanding to get everybody acting just a bit wackier than normal. The key to such a show is how much you like the star and how badly you want to return each week to the make-believe universe she inhabits on your television screen.

I love the Bette in "Bette." And her producers have surrounded her with a winning cast of supporting players. In addition to Dunn, there's Joanna Gleason as Bette's best friend and manager, James Dreyfus as her accompanist and Lindsay Lohan as Bette's 13-year-old daughter, Rose.

I can't wait for episodes two and three, but I bet they won't be as strong as the pilot. That's my big concern: How can Bette possibly maintain this level of all-out physical performance for 22 weeks?

After all, to be brutally honest, even the greatest divas start to hear the hoofbeats of time once theyreach the ripe old age of 35.

'Bette'

When: Tonight at 8

Where: WJZ (Channel 13)

In brief: By far, the best sitcom of the new season.

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