The single biggest lie of July's TV critics press tour came from Ed Asner, one of the co-stars of CBS's new sitcom "Center of the Universe."
"I don't think I've ever felt so high about a completed project," Asner said. "Maybe I felt that way about 'Mary (Tyler Moore),' but I definitely felt that way about this show."
He's lucky he wasn't struck by lightning when he said that. To be comparing the season's worst new sitcom to a TV classic borders on sacrilege.
"Universe," which premieres Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. on Ch. 2, boasts one of the finest casts ever assembled for a sitcom. Eight-time Emmy-nominee John Goodman ("Roseanne") stars as John, a good guy who's the sane one in a family fully of nuts. Oh, his wife Kate (two-time Emmy-winner Jean Smart of "Designing Women") is pretty normal, and they're very much in love, but the rest of the family is one step away from the looney bin.
John's father Art (seven-time Emmy-winner Asner) is an oversexed lout. His spacey mother (Oscar-winner Olympia Dukakis) wants to be more like Kate. His brother Tommy (Diedrich Bader of "Drew Carey") is an irresponsible idiot. His sister Lily (Melinda McGraw) is a therapist who needs therapy.
Even John and Kate's 12-year-old son Miles (Spencer Breslin) is decidedly odd.
What they are not is funny. "Universe" proves that it's all in the writing, and the writing on this show is dreadful. The show-running writer/executive producers, Mitchel Katlin and Nat Bernstein, have a resume replete with sitcom failures — "Abby," "Cursed," "Gregory Hines," "Hudson Street," "Bringing Up Jack," "Joe's Life" and "Baby Boom" — to which "Center of the Universe" will soon be added.
It's not just that it's unfunny, it's painfully unfunny. The tape of the pilot episode sent to critics wasn't "sweetened" — there was no laugh track added — and there weren't any laughs from the studio audience. Well, a few nervous, uncomfortable titters, but that was it.
This has to be TV's greatest waste of acting talent in years. Which makes you wonder why in the world these people signed on.
"It affords a fine paycheck for at least 13 weeks," said Goodman, who was practically morose when he appeared before critics,
He'll no doubt get paid for 13 episodes; whether 13 episodes of this disaster will air is unlikely.
SECOND TIME AROUND (Monday, 8:30 p.m., UPN/Ch. 24) has a lot going for it, including a decent premise and two very appealing stars who don't lack for chemistry.
This sitcom is about newlyweds with a twist — Ryan (Nicole Parker) and Jackson (Boris Kodjoe) have just gotten married. For the second time. To each other.
Several years earlier, they were divorced after a brief marriage. And they've just tied the knot again. Which is the framework for the plot lines.
It would have been nice if executive producers Ralph Farquahar and Michelle Listenbee-Brown ("Bernie Mac") had done something more with it in the pilot than spend so much time dealing with petty jealousies and misunderstandings, however. Which is the big drawback to "Second Time Around" — it has little in the way of laughs.
Parker and Kodjoe are great. And they're great together. Their chemistry — the two former "Soul Food" stars are engaged in real life — fairly sparks off the screen.
It's not that "Second Time Around" is bad. It just isn't much. But maybe given time, it can build on the stars' chemistry and turn into something more.
RODNEY (Tuesday, 8:30 p.m., ABC/Ch. 4) isn't bad, but it isn't as good as the stand-up comedy of Rodney Carrington, on whose life the show is based.
Such is the way of network sitcoms.
"Rodney" would love nothing more than to be "Roseanne" for the 21st century. Only nicer. And with a guy, of course.
Carrington stars as Rodney Hamilton, a blue-collar Joe who's the kind of guy you'd love to hang out with — funny, friendly, a bit off-the-wall. He's got a wife (Jennifer Aspen), two kids, an unpleasant job at a fiberglass factory and big dreams. He wants to be a stand-up comedian.
Not exactly an original idea, granted. Just this summer, Aspen was on another sitcom ("Come to Papa") that starred a stand-up comedian (Tom Pappas) playing the wife of a regular guy who wanted to get into comedy. ("He actually wasn't trying to be a stand-up comic. He was trying to be a comedy writer. It's totally different," Aspen joked.)
With sitcoms, it's all in the execution. Tuesday's "Rodney" pilot is fairly pleasant, occasionally crude and sometimes funny. It's not bad, but it's nothing to get excited about.
It's another show that benefits greatly from having as its star someone who could indeed turn out to be a television star, if given the chance. And decent scripts.
Stay tuned. . . .