- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 6, 2001

Throwing together a list of ingredients does not necessarily make a good cake; likewise, haphazardly bunching together the elements of a good sitcom does not spell success.

"Three Sisters," a half-hour show premiering at 9:30 p.m. Tuesday on NBC, proves this concept by taking fine ingredients — a good cast and successful writers — and mixing them up with timeworn sitcom setups.

The show is told from the point of view of Steven Keats (David Alan Basche), who marries the oldest of three very close sisters. He soon realizes that he has married not one sister, but all of them, and that close relationship is the punch line for countless jokes. When the laughter doesn't work, this family bond is played straight, and the audience is supposed to wipe a tear over how wonderful it is for these three to love one another.

If only the characters moved beyond their cookie-cutter roles, this sort of connection might be possible. Instead, each of the three plays a stereotype — the youngest, Annie (A.J. Langer), is a beautiful airhead; the middle child, Nora (Vicki Lewis), is bitterly smart, but luckless with men; and the oldest, Bess (Katherine LaNasa), is married, mothering and overbearing. For a show that celebrates the bonds of sisterhood, this one gives the three stars little wiggle room outside these set roles.

"Three Sisters," perhaps because it is narrated by a man, also plays to its share of stereotypes. These include a set piece in which every woman in a restaurant recounts everything she ate that day. In jokes like these, the show feels more tragic than funny.

The pilot episode focuses on Nora's return to the United States after working as a documentary filmmaker in Africa. Her two-year stint away from home was sparked by a bitter divorce, but in coming back home, she realizes that all she really needs is her sisters' love.

This realization comes only after a ridiculous confrontation over Bess' attempts to make her younger sister happy by setting her up in an awkward blind date and lying to Nora about a nasty aspect of Nora's divorce. In moments like these, it is hard to understand why the three sisters actually care about one another. The screen chemistry among the three doesn't exude family love, but rather a scripted lukewarm familiarity.

The strongest performances come from Peter Bonerz as the girls' father, George; Dyan Cannon as their mother, Honey; and Mr. Basche as the show's voice.

Although these roles are not the focus, the characters are more likable than the sisters. Mr. Bonerz, familiar to many as Dr. Jerry Robinson on "The Bob Newhart Show," was born to play a TV father.

One of the more creative aspects of the show is using Steven as the narrator rather than any of the sisters. This puts their antics in perspective, although it also makes the audience sympathize with him far more than with the show's stars and even makes one wonder how he can be so evenhanded when his in-laws walk all over him.

The writing team of Eileen Heisler and DeAnn Heline were behind such hits as "Roseanne" and "Murphy Brown." "Three Sisters" is not a standout, though NBC has shown that even poor shows can be hits with the right amount of publicity and the right time slot.

For the sake of the show, it would be better if it lasted only a few quick episodes.{*}1/2WHAT: "Three Sisters"WHERE: WRC-TV (Channel 4)WHEN 9:30 p.m. Tuesday

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