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Taking a leaf out of others' book

One guy is gay, the other's straight. They wind up sharing an apartment in Greenwich Village.

That's the premise of "Some of My Best Friends," a CBS midseason sitcom premiering tonight that's based on the feature film "Kiss Me, Guido." It's not inspired the way "Will & Grace" was when it debuted three years ago, but neither is it regressive to the point of being offensive like John Goodman's "Normal, Ohio," which premiered and was quickly canceled earlier this season on Fox.

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Like most midseason series, there is promise here, but there's no way to know after looking at only two episodes whether that comic potential will be fulfilled. The most interesting aspect of the series to me is how such shows are exploring gay and masculine identity in prime-time via their punch lines.

Tonight's pilot ends with this exchange between Warren Fairbanks (Jason Bateman), the gay half of this odd couple, and Frankie Zito (Danny Nucci), the heterosexual one. After a half-hour of misunderstandings, arguments and some insults, they have decided to give living together a try.

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"So, Warren, now that I know you're gay, we've got to lay down some ground rules," Frankie says.

"Such as?" Warren responds.

"Such as no playing show tunes all day long. I know how you people are into that," Frankie says.

"Well, OK, and while we're talking, would you mind not watching football and hockey and monster truck rallies all day. I know how you people like that," Warren fires back.

"Well, what about wrestling? I really like to watch wrestling," Frankie says sheepishly.

"As luck would have it," Warren says, giving a smile and a fey tilt of the head as he leaves the apartment, "so do I."

Much of the humor in the pilot does play mainly at the level of stereotype. In fact, there is nothing particularly fresh about the writing in general. One punch line that is played three different times during the pilot involves the belief that you can tell if a person is gay by saying, "Clang, clang, clang," and then asking them to finish the sentence. If they say, "went the trolley," they are gay.

The premise of the joke is that gay men love Judy Garland and know this lyric as the opening line of "The Trolley Song," which she sang in "Meet Me In St. Louis." I first heard the joke in 1991 as part of an Arsenio Hall routine. We should expect more originality from network television than recycling old jokes from the routines of standup comics.

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We've seen these characters before - and not just on the big screen with "Kiss Me, Guido." Frankie is Joey Tribbiani (Matt LeBlanc) of the NBC sitcom "Friends," while Warren is Will Truman (Erin McCormack) of NBC's "Will & Grace." Even the character of Vern Limoso (Alec Mapa), Warren's flamboyantly gay best friend who lives upstairs, is derivative. He's a knockoff of Jack McFarland (Sean Hayes) of "Will & Grace."

That said, the series does deserve credit for treating gay identity neither as monolithic nor some aberration that is so abnormal as to be automatically funny. In fact, the hyper-hetero-masculinity of Frankie's best friend, Pino (Michael DeLuise), comes in for more ridicule than anything defined as gay in the pilot.

The producers clearly understand that there is more than one way to be a man - that's the promise of "Some of My Best Friends." While it is not enough to get too excited about, given the history of gay and lesbian identity in prime-time television before "Will & Grace," it is enough to say let's stay with this series for a few weeks and see where it goes.

Premiere

What:"Some of My Best Friends"

When: 8 tonight

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Where: WJZ (Channel 13)

In brief: Derivative but promising sitcom about roommates - one gay, the other heterosexual


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