Home Box Office has assembled an all-star cast for its new sitcom "Dream On," but the assembling was done in a film library. Great stars pop up, all right - in black-and-white clips from the vault at Universal Studios.
Ronald Reagan, Bette Davis, Groucho Marx, Joan Crawford, Jack Benny, Vincent Price, Ed Wynn, Burl Ives, and many others, living and dead, materialize. It seems the hero grew up watching TV, and now his daily life is besieged by visions from long-gone TV dramas.That's the premise, anyway, and it's a slim one. The series, premiering on HBO Sunday at 11 p.m., does have a certain illusory entertainment value. The problem is that the little scenes from the old shows seem so much more intriguing than the new show they interrupt.
In the premiere, for instance, we see Barbara Hale (later Della Street on "Perry Mason") shrieking in horror as she watches Peter Lorre saunter down a hallway. Reason: He has an eye in the back of his head. But literally.
Gosh, let's see more of that! But no, we're soon out of the flashback and back to the story of a 36-year-old book editor who bumbles through life halfheartedly romancing his ex-wife and never quite asserting himself in a way that would make you want to give a hoot.
Brian Benben, who plays the man, has the anonymous looks of a typical TV hero. He could be Joel Higgins of "Silver Spoons" or Scott Bakula of "Quantum Leap" or some other modular schlemiel. The character is just about as indistinguishable as the actor is.
David Crane and Marta Kauffman, the writers, put in some bright lines and funny touches, and occasionally the juxtapositions with the old film clips are inspired. John Landis, the movie director ("Animal House") directed the premiere and coproduces the series.
Because this is cable, there is a peep of nudity here and there. To be specific: two bare breasts per episode.
The clips are all from anthology dramas produced for TV in the '50s and '60s, and sometimes they are maddeningly tantalizing, like when Peggy Lee opens the door and sees A Man with a Melted Face! Or when a woman jumps out a second-story window as a man on the ground yells, "Jane! No!"
CBS, the last-place network on regular TV, has a few low-calorie summer series on its docket, too. One of them, "Prime-Time Pets," is unforgivably inane, a feeble mutant rip-off of "America's Funniest Home Videos" and David Letterman's "Stupid Pet Tricks."
In the premiere on Monday, host Wil Shriner unreels supposedly hilarious videos of animals doing the darndest things. A cow sits on a picnic table, a parrot drives a toy car, a cat leaps across a room and a man dresses up his dog's butt in sunglasses.
"Prime Time Pets" constitutes cruelty to animals and to viewers as well.
Better by an immeasurable country mile is "Northern Exposure," a whimsical hour-long comedy-drama about a young doctor from Queens, N.Y., who with enormous reluctance opens his practice in a remote and frontiersy Alaskan hamlet. The series begins its eight-week run on Thursday, July 12.
In the noble tradition of fishes-out-of-water, our anxious novice physician faces innumerable problems of adjustment. A severe case of culture shock is only the half of it. Shown a fireplace in his small, dingy cabin, he asks, "What do you do for wood?" The answer: "Chop it."
Rob Morrow, the young actor who plays the doctor, has a lot of whining to do, and the character as written is almost too wimpy a complainer. Presumably he will soften as the series progresses, and discover in this small town the kind of bedrock values that characters in movies and TV shows always discover in small towns.