NEW YORK -- I really had it in for "Becker," the new sitcom starring Ted Danson as a grumpy, opinionated Bronx doctor (Monday nights at 9:30 on CBS -- check local listings).
First, it's replacing "The Brian Benben Show." That was only the funniest comedy of the year at CBS. So naturally, it was the first to be canceled. Compared to, say, "Maggie Winters," "Benben" was "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." The problem with "Benben" was the opposition. People didn't vote against "Benben," but for "Will & Grace" on NBC.
Or maybe it was, as Famous Kitman Exit Poll voter Sharon Thomas of Manhattan suggested, "Benben's lack of nude scenes," a feature of Benben's more successful "Dream On." They had their knives sharpened for "Benben." Even before the season began, the show was inexplicably in trouble at CBS. If something had to go, why not that comedic lightweight, Faith Ford's "Maggie Winters"?
Even more puzzling was the scheduling of "Becker" -- in the same time slot as Danson's last CBS disaster, "Ink," which left a giant blot that still hasn't been erased. Hadn't we had enough of Danson in that newspapercom that I called "Stink"?
Ted the problem apparent
The problem, it seemed, was the star. Ted (Yes, I Really Do Think I'm That Wonderful) Danson, as Gina McGovern of Bethpage, New York, analyzed his post "Cheers" problem, "got a self-importance transplant, aged 10 years and -- shudder -- turned into Ted Danson."
I felt sorry for him and his career. He's probably still kicking himself for dropping out of "Cheers" after only 12 seasons. Everybody else wanted to go on with the show, but he was, well, Ted Danson. It must make him boil to see how successful a mere underling, Kelsey Grammer, is doing on "Frasier."
Tell me one person who was asking for more Ted Danson, I found myself asking when I started hearing the promos for "Becker." The same people who were clamoring for Tom Selleck maybe. "Danson is about as charismatic today as a stale glass of beer," Herb Friedman of Bellmore, New York, explained.
"Becker" had to be part of a big development deal. They had to pay him, so they dug up another role and hung it on him for size. The fine print in Danson's contract would be funnier than the show, based on the promos.
What promos the show had! I agreed with exit-pollee Neil Bellovin of Smithtown, New York: "If the best line they could show in the coming attractions is Ted Danson telling an overweight guy to eat a salad, this show won't make it past the second commercial break."
As I said, I was really prepared to hate this "Becker."
OK, I did my duty. I watched the whole show. And you know what? It's funny, damn funny! Begrudgingly, with fists and teeth clenched, I laughed.
If the purpose of the show is to prove that New Yorkers can be obnoxious -- the subtext of any show L.A. does about New York -- it is more than successful. Dr. John Becker, Danson's character, rants and raves. He's mad as hell about life in New York and our sick society in general. In the premiere, he is teed off at trash talk shows and sleazy car salespeople. He goes on a tirade about adult education courses, about bicycle riders who think they're saving the environment while riding their little bikes between 50 million taxis belching smoke. He yells at his neighbors for playing ethnic music and threatens to call Immigration.
He doesn't shave. He smokes, but only in public places. He swears. He argues with the blind.
He especially yells at his patients. "Check out the Hippocratic oath," he explains. "You don't have to be nice." He hollers at a TV hypochondriac who comes down with every ailment she saw on last night's disease-of-the-week movie.
Bellowing, but big heart too
But behind all the bellowing, Dr. John Becker has a big heart. He goes out of his way to help his poor patients, like the 7-year-old kid with HIV from a blood transfusion. He yells at them for their own good.
John Becker, M.D., is one of those old-fashioned doctors. Underneath all the loud noise beats a heart of pure gold. I know it's a cliché, but it works wonderfully in "Becker."
This doctor's office is filled with believable characters: His long-suffering head nurse, Margaret (Hattie Winston), who organizes the chaos in his practice, his bizarre nurse's aide, Linda (Shawnee Smith), with her alternative lifestyle.
But the best stuff is during his visits to the neighborhood diner where he goes to vent even more spleen.
At the diner, with the owner, (Terry Farrell) and the wise, blind news dealer Jake (Alex Desert), Danson has finally found a place where everyone knows his name.
Danson likable again
Produced by Dave Hackel, "Becker" has good writing, interactions and situations that are not that hard to believe, and most important, Danson is likable again. He isn't just the braggart side of Sam Malone as he was as Mike Logan on "Ink." John Becker is what Sam Malone would have been if he got a sore arm early in his career and went to Harvard Medical School instead of opening a bar in Boston.
As obnoxious as he can be, this Bronx doctor is still a lot more enjoyable to spend time with than those "L.A. Doctors" who follow.
I held my breath watching the second episode. But it was even funnier than the first episode.
And, look, even if you still hate Ted Danson and can't eradicate "Ink" from your mind, you've got to watch the end of the second episode just to see Becker's method of dealing with telemarketers who call during dinner. My wife usually asks for their phone number so she can call them back during their dinner hour. Dr. Becker has a better idea, which is too marvelous to give away.
If you're feeling a little sick from all the sexcoms whose idea of humor is trying to get Jesse or whomever into bed, have "Becker" make a house call. It's the best new comedy of the year so far.
Kitman is the television critic for New York Newsday. His column appears regularly on CNN Interactive's Entertainment section. E-mail Kitman at MarvinKitmanShow@worldnet.att.net
(c) 1998, Newsday Inc. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate.
Back to the top
© 2000 Cable News Network. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines.