- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 5, 2002

Imagine this: NBC chooses to lead off its Tuesday night comedy lineup with a show that's consistently funny. Well, keep dreaming. It's not happening next week.

"Imagine That," a new sitcom starring professional scene-stealer Hank Azaria ("The Birdcage") as a comedy writer with a penchant for Walter Mittylike fantasies, debuts at 8 p.m. Tuesday on WRC-TV (Channel 4). The show isn't much funnier than the other half-baked sitcoms that have aired in that time slot recently, including the doomed-from-the-beginning "Emeril" and "The Michael Richards Show."

The usually likable Mr. Azaria portrays Josh Miller, an unassuming writer for a weekly TV sketch show. Wimpy Josh has problems at work (his boss steals his best ideas) and at home (his superlawyer wife is preoccupied with her career).

But Josh escapes his troubles with occasional flights of fancy. In the episode made available for preview, it happens when he and wife Wendy are waiting to meet their marriage counselor for the first time. Josh imagines the man will be a beer-swilling boor who will urge Wendy to give Josh the romantic attention he craves.

Mr. Azaria portrays both Josh and the macho therapist in the fantasy sequence. For the therapist role, Mr. Azaria hides behind an unbuttoned polyester shirt and heavy makeup that makes him look like Jay Leno's less-handsome younger brother.

At one point, the therapist tosses Josh a can of beer, telling him in a thick New York accent that if Wendy "starts to mouth off again, I want you take two of these every hour."

It's one of the episode's few laugh-out-loud moments. It's also the only time during the show that Mr. Azaria looks as though he's having fun.

Each episode of "Imagine That" will feature a scene or two in which Mr. Azaria plays a fantasy character, according to NBC's publicity materials. The sequences are designed to display the comic talents of Mr. Azaria, who has won two Emmy awards for providing the voices of Apu the convenience store worker, Moe the bartender and other memorable characters on "The Simpsons."

The fantasy sequences may remind viewers of "Ally McBeal," another show in which the characters' imaginations often run wild. The "Imagine That" sequences also evoke memories of "Herman's Head," an early 1990s Fox comedy that used a four-member Greek chorus to illustrate the moral dilemmas experienced by its main character. (Coincidentally, Mr. Azaria had a supporting role on "Herman's Head.")

The "Imagine That" fantasy sequences are fun, but the rest of the show is dragged down by cookie-cutter sitcom shenanigans.

The show tries to strike a balance between Josh's workplace and his domestic life, a classic sitcom formula that only works when lively characters populate both settings.

Katey Sagal of "Married With Children" brings energy to her role as Barb, Josh's overbearing boss, but the rest of the workplace characters are lifeless. Jayne Brook shows gusto as Wendy, but viewers will be left wondering why Josh stays married to a woman who seems to go out of her way to avoid being affectionate with him.

As the "Imagine That" fantasy sequence shows, Mr. Azaria is better-suited for sketch comedy than a traditional sitcom.

So why didn't NBC just give him a sketch show in which he could do one wild character after another, skit after skit? The network cannot rely on the tired excuse that sketch comedy is passe in prime time: CBS' recent "Carol Burnett Show" reunion special drew big ratings, and ABC scored respectable numbers last summer with "The Wayne Brady Show," a fun musical-comedy series slated to return to the schedule later this season.

If "Imagine That" fails to draw viewers, maybe NBC will pull it from the lineup and build a new sketch show around Mr. Azaria. It's not too hard to imagine him headlining a sophisticated show along the lines of Tracey Ullman's old "skitcom" on Fox. Such a series would be a better showcase for Mr. Azaria's abilities, and it would be a lot more fun to watch.

A network that knows what to do when it gets its hands on a talent such as Mr. Azaria? Imagine that.


**

WHAT: "Imagine That"

WHERE: WRC-TV (Channel 4)

WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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