Hearts Afire Mrs. Hartman, Mrs. Hartman

Astory thread left dangling last season is wrapped up in an especially funny episode of "Hearts Afire." Now ensconced between "Womenof the House" and "Double Rush," the third-season show -- if it continues at this pace -- could help provide CBS with a Wednesday night lineup to rival what it used to have on Mondays.

With:
Cast: John Ritter, Markie Post, Bily Bob Thornton, Conchata Ferrell, Clark Duke, Doren Fein, J. Sklyar Testa, Leslie Jordan, Julie Cobb, Lee Kessler.

Astory thread left dangling last season is wrapped up in an especially funny episode of “Hearts Afire.” Now ensconced between “Womenof the House” and “Double Rush,” the third-season show — if it continues at this pace — could help provide CBS with a Wednesday night lineup to rival what it used to have on Mondays.

Episode is centered on return of Diandra (Julie Cobb), former wife of John Hartman (John Ritter). When last seen, Diandra had run off with the couple’s therapist, a woman named Ruth.

At first, John is reluctant to see his former wife, but before long they’re confiding and conferring with one another as if they’d never separated. And does current wife Georgie Ann (Markie Post) fume!

When the series was reconfigured last year, and moved from its D.C. setting to small-town Arkansas, Conchata Ferrell, who had played the recurring role of Ruth, was recast: Now she’s still a therapist, but this time straight and named Madeline.

Confusing? As Billy Bob Davis (Billy Bob Thornton) tells Madeline in Pamela Norris and Paul Clay’s witty script, “as a matter of fact, that Ruth looked a little bit like you.”

Madeline sets matters straight with Diandra: “I’m sure that I’m different from her in very significant ways … never in my life have I owned a k.d. lang CD.”

It’s an easy joke, and somewhat off the mark — Ferron, Cris Williamson or Linda Tillery would have been more appropriate, if obscure — but still pretty hip for 8:30 network television.

Speaking of which, the secondary story finds Lonnie Garr (Leslie Jordan) toting a circular sent out by an unnamed fundamentalist preacher, who warns of sex and violence in upcoming TV episodes — while carefully listing airdate and time.

Lonnie’s mother (who subscribes to the circular) has started watching “NYPD Blue,” he says, “and yells out the window every time there’s a bare butt.”

Seg’s funniest sequence finds John, Georgie Ann and Diandra appearing on “Jenny Jones” in a dream sequence, via stock Jones footage intercut with the actors.

Show is strongly cast throughout, with Thornton and Jordan distinctly “Southern” characters without being too stereotypical, and Ritter and Post appealing as individuals and as a couple.

“Afire” doesn’t take its setting of a small-town newspaper very seriously: Someone should explain to the producers that neither reporters nor editors would use laptop computers for day-to-day work.

Hearts Afire Mrs. Hartman, Mrs. Hartman

(Wed. (18), 8:30-9 p.m., CBS)

Production: Videotaped in Los Angeles by Mozark Prods. Executive producers, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, Harry Thomason, Robert M. Myman; co-executive producers/writers, Pamela Norris, Paul Clay; producers, Douglas G. Jackson, Tommy Thompson; co-producer, Chad O'Connor; director, James Hampton.

Crew: Camera, James Roberson; editor, Steve Shultz, Pat Barnett; art director, Ken Johnson; sound, Larry Lasota; music, Bruce Miller.

Cast: Cast: John Ritter, Markie Post, Bily Bob Thornton, Conchata Ferrell, Clark Duke, Doren Fein, J. Sklyar Testa, Leslie Jordan, Julie Cobb, Lee Kessler.

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