Screensavors: Dead on arrival

OUT OF PRACTICE Mercifully, CBS has already pulled the plug on this medical clunker, which Xtra HOT is running on Tuesdays.

The TV business can be a cruel game. Shows that seem to have everything going for them die because of bad time slots; others are just too hip for the audience. CBS viewers are currently fighting to save the new series Jericho, due on Xtra HOT shortly, while a similar campaign failed to save one of our favorites, Dead Like Me, a couple of years back. But then there are the few programs which quite frankly deserve a quick death, like Xtra HOT's new pick-up Out of Practice, a failed CBS comedy from the 2005-06 season being played out on Tuesdays here at 21:30. You don't have to be a doctor to understand just what diseases infected this clunker about a dysfunctional family of MDs from the get-go. All you have to do is listen to the awful script. First we meet Ben (Christopher Gorham of Jake 2.0), a psycho-therapist who's first seen offering advice to a grumpy old married couple, which turns out to be nothing but a set-up for a later plot development. After a bad joke about mammographies - we assume the writers were men - we get the first of many set-up jokes, as in Ben, celebrating his birthday while his wife is out of town, insisting that despite spending more time lately with his mother since her divorce, "I am not spending my 30th birthday having dinner with my mom." Cue mom, of course, in this case the wonderful Stockard Channing reduced to playing an overbearing character who of course that moment walks in and declares; "Grab your coat, Benji - mom needs a big fat martini before the symphony." Mention Ben's father and poof - in he walks, here the great Henry Winkler, AKA The Fonz of Happy Days fame, given a limited role as Ben's dad Stuart and not much to work with in his return to sitcom-ville. Ben's got a brother who's a plastic surgeon and a sister who works in the ER - in fact, he's the only non-doctor in the family that's the focus of this forced comedy the hyperactive laugh track thinks should have you in stitches. Truth be told, however, anyone who'd be treated by these characters would probably be more likely to sue their HMO for unnecessary infliction of boredom. Besides the boob jokes supplied by Ben's brother Ollie and the lesbian jokes aimed at his sister Regina, there are even anti-vegetarian jokes. Turns out Ben's wife Naomi is one, with Ollie recalling how "she made us watch that vegan propaganda film about the slaughterhouses." "Other than that, it was a very nice wedding," notes Stuart. When Ben decides to have his whole family over to try to keep them all together despite his parents' divorce, the writers offer standard farce: a case of double misunderstandings based on a phone call to Ben's machine overheard by his family members indicating his wife wants out of the marriage, coupled with Ben's discovery that dad's been sleeping with his secretary. Several predictable exchanges later, nobody but the soundtrack is doing much laughing. After all, there's a limit to how many jokes can be milked from a tofu lasagna, although the desperate writers try hard to find them all. Here and there, Channing scores with a zinger, as when her daughter takes off her hat to show mom her new hair color. "Dear," says mom, "you work in the ER. People die there. Do you really want that hair to be the last thing they ever see?" Unfortunately, the overall script is the equivalent to mousy gray. Naturally, the family unites around Ben, who as he listens to his sister note the family's lousy "batting average" in marriage notices the grumpy couple he'd been counseling as the show began sharing a romantic moment. Groan… Gorham's too weak in his role, while Winkler and Channing are largely wasted in this bad effort, as is Jennifer Tilly as Winkler's bimbo secretary. Winkler, who's done wonderful work for children with dyslexia, which he also suffered from as a kid, is such a mensch he certainly deserves to land another gig, although more likely he'll continue going the directing/producing route. As for this show, however, we can only say it was a blessing that CBS pulled the plug on what can only be called medical comedy malpractice.