ABC could have a hit, but there are definitely some misses

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's hype, hope and a prayer for ABC tonight as the struggling network premieres the three new series on which it is most heavily banking its season.

Given the programming doldrums into which Disney has driven ABC, along with advance word on what a dismal fall lineup the networks are collectively fielding, you might not expect much. But there is at least one series here that could become a hit ---it's just not the one you've been hearing so much about the past couple of months.

Push, Nevada is the series that has generated the buzz for ABC, albeit helped by a lot of network money and hype. Described as an "interactive mystery" by ABC, the one thing the network never lets you forget about this series is that it is produced by Ben Affleck.

For example, the first words of the network's publicity package announcing tonight's premiere are Ben and Affleck. The first sentence tells us that Affleck and his producing partner, Sean Bailey, "take another bold step in the re-invention of modern entertainment with their provocative and offbeat mystery series, Push, Nevada."

Would this be the same Ben Affleck and Sean Bailey who last year produced The Runner, one of the most ill-conceived, poorly executed and crackpot "interactive reality series" in the history of - oh, what the heck - modern entertainment? What a bold step in re-invention that was.

Push, Nevada is not a terrible series in any way, shape or form. In fact, it's fairly entertaining. But what I absolutely hate about it is how desperately hard it tries to be Twin Peaks. And the harder it tries, the more depressed I get about the total absence of even one original idea in the entire lineup of new fall shows.

Push is a strange, small town with one big casino in the middle of the desert. We enter it with Jim Prufrock, strait-laced IRS agent, who goes to Push after mistakenly receiving a fax from the Versailles Casino that contains a major accounting error. Only an obsessive would respond to the fax the way Prufrock does, but I'm willing to buy the motivation.

As for the literary allusion to the central figure in T.S. Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, while it might fool some viewers into thinking the script by Affleck and Bailey has some intellectual meat on its bones, that won't be the case for anyone who has actually read the poem. This Prufrock is in his late 20s or early 30s, and there is not one bit of an "I grow old/I grow old" sensibility to him.

Nor does he wonder about daring "to eat a peach." Once in Push, this Prufrock goes toe to toe with what appears to be a very crooked casino boss, played wonderfully by Jon Polito (Homicide: Life on the Street), threatening the sleazebag up one side and down the other with the power of the IRS. And our Jim Prufrock is not indecisive in the least in getting the very peachy Mary (Scarlett Chorvat), a dancer at Sloman's slo-dance bar, to move around the dance floor with him.

Mary does make a cool speech to Prufrock as she tries to persuade him to quit pushing for the truth and leave Push before he gets hurt. But again, I heard it all before in Twin Peaks. In fact, I had to check the credits to make sure Chorvat wasn't Sherilyn Fenn from Twin Peaks. Postmodernism gives permission to borrow, not beg and steal.

The one big difference between Push, Nevada and Twin Peaks is that the producers have built a game show element into this mystery, with clues planted each week. Watch the series, solve the mystery, and you could win a million dollars, according to ABC. That's the interactive part. La-di-dah.

I remember a time when ABC didn't have to pay people to watch its shows.

Push, Nevada debuts at 9 tonight on WMAR (Channel 2).

Keep fingers crossed

Life With Bonnie, starring Bonnie Hunt, is the season's best hope for a genuine hit sitcom. You might not have heard a lot about this series, but don't let that stop you from making time to catch its debut tonight.

It's a family sitcom built around Hunt playing Bonnie Molloy, wife, mother of three young children and a host of a morning talk show in Chicago. The half hour starts in chaos and ends in utter exhaustion, with moments in between that seem almost inspired compared to the level of humor in other new sitcoms this fall.

The premise is that Bonnie Molloy's life is out of control. She is always running late and is near collapse. The trick here is instead of having her articulate that with words and possibly come off as sounding whiny, as characters in other series about the madness of working mom-dom have done, Life With Bonnie shows the insanity of her existence and lets you enjoy the comic spectacle. The producers pull it off by letting the actors improvise and revving the action and badinage with co-workers up to a speed that approaches a Marx brothers movie when Molloy is in the workplace.

A cooking segment she does with two Italian chefs is knockout. The stressed-out Molloy has a couple of drinks of wine during the 9 a.m. segment and starts to lose her internal censor - the mechanism that keeps us from saying many of the things that we are thinking. From asking the chefs if they always wear leather to cook, to telling them they are getting better looking with each sip, Hunt lays down a marvelous stream of consciousness alongside the slapstick action.

The scenes at home don't play nearly as well, which is why I'd like to hold off on anything approaching a rave. But there is great comic energy as well as the potential to connect with what many women might just be feeling in these sure-you-can-have-it-all, post-movement days.

Life With Bonnie airs at 8:30 tonight on WMAR (Channel 2).

A little too simple

The tension between career and being a parent is at the heart of another new ABC sitcom, 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter, only here it's dad who's having the time- and emotion-management problems. Since dad is played by the likable John Ritter, 8 Simple Rules is fairly likable in a bland sort of way - a very, very bland sort of way.

Not that bland is automatically bad; it's just that there is nothing here to get excited about. And that could be bad news for ABC, which is praying for an 8 o'clock show to carry the night.

Ritter plays Paul Hennessy, a husband, father of three teen-agers and sports columnist. When his wife, Cate (Katey Sagal), goes back to work as an emergency-room nurse, he suddenly finds himself shouldering more of the duties for 16-year-old Bridget (Kaley Cuoco) and 15-year-old Kerry (Amy Davidson), along with son Rory (Martin Spanjers), 13.

"The boy," as Rory is called, is a piece of cake. But the daughters suddenly seem like they are from another planet - especially in their budding sexuality.

The series is based on a best-selling book of the same title by W. Bruce Cameron, so you know there is an audience for the subject matter. But does it have to be this flattened-out and cliched-up for television?

The series premieres at 8 tonight on WMAR (Channel 2).

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