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HARPER STILLS SHOWS THE ZAP IN NEW SITCOM
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HARPER STILLS SHOWS THE ZAP IN NEW SITCOM

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It's that time of the TV season when shows are sent off to the near-oblivion network execs call hiatus. Two weeks ago, when CBS must have assumed few people were watching, they sent ``The Famous Teddy Z' - touted as its brightest hope for comeback status - spiraling down to rewrite-land.

What have they come up with to replace the lightweight contender? Beginning at 8:30 p.m. today, (WFMY, Channel 2) Valerie Harper returns to network TV in a saucy sitcom called ``City.' The sauciness stems from Harper, cast as a put-upon city manager whose problems with a feisty teenage daughter are nothing compared to those awaiting her at the office.The characters surrounding Harper - a black woman, an Asian man and a Cuban woman - are convincing evidence that someone's been studying their demographics. For perky plot permutations, there's a ditzy head of public relations, an unctuous secretary, a swaggering do-nothing deputy-mayor and a bossy assistant manager who's more interested in horse racing than city council meetings. Close your eyes, ignore the accents, and you'd swear you were back in ``Carter Country.'

There's nothing new about ``City.' It's busy, noisy and full of one-liners that occasionally zing and often zonk. But Harper has lost none of her zap during the lengthy legal hassles over what started out as ``Valerie' and ended up as ``The Hogan Family.' The cast is predictable but fun. The show could prove to be a wise replacement for ``Teddy.' Now, if they'd just can that obnoxious laugh track.

Martha Rasnick is the heroine of a short story by Lee Smith. Now, she's the leading character in ``Dear Phil,' a film based on the Smith story and made by newcomer Robert Newton.(10:30 p.m. Wednesday, WUNC, Channels 4 and 26).

I'm not familiar with the original story, but the author surely supplied a deeper sense of place, time and character than appears in the 32-minute TV version. To make much sense out of the central character, Smith must have graced Martha with a touch of irony and an awareness of the inherent humor in her situation.

Writer-director Newton's voice-over narration suggests Martha is capable of recognizing different levels of feeling. There are hints of self-awareness, indications of self-effacement, even self-mockery. But little is used for dramatic effect in Newton's script or direction.

As the film puts it, Martha appears to have everything a modern Southern woman could want: a husband who is a successful real estate agent, an adorable 3-year-old boy and a large home in fictitious Tudorsville, N.C.

But something troubles Martha. Unable to discuss it with her husband or her friends, she puts her feelings down on paper and sends them off in letters to Phil Donahue. She feels as if he's a close friend, having been an habitual guest in the Rasnick household every weekday for as long as she cares to remember.

Martha's correspondence takes on an added note of excitement when a mysterious man she's seen wandering the neighborhood seeks refuge in her garage.

The excitement that comes from guarding such a secret sets Martha free from her humdrum life. Her first act is to visit the beauty parlor, where she persuades the disapproving hairdresser to design a new look. On the way home, she impulsively drops in at the poolroom for a quick game with the regulars. Then she rushes home to fix dinner for her unexpected guest.

That's the basic idea behind Newton's ambitious but disappointing film.

As Martha, Raleigh actress MaryKate Cunningham fails to provide much insight into the character beyond what Newton has written for her. It's a workmanlike performance enlivened by an occasional brief smile or twinkle in the eye that suggests she might be capable of delivering more. Her narration and her interpretation, gliding along with hardly any inflection, produce a placidity that makes her occasional four-letter words seem shocking and out of place.

Richmond actor Michael Kennedy plays Martha's husband, Jerry, vaguely and ineffectually, which may reflect Newton's direction more than Kennedy's ability.

Newton is reported to have been attracted to the sense of the past and the rootedness of place in Smith's story. Those elements are sadly lacking in his film.

Newton's next project, scheduled to begin in May, is another film based on a short story by Greensboro writer Marianne Gingher. Perhaps this time he'll be more successful.

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