The timing could not be more fortuitous for the debut of a smart-mouthed comedy set in the nation’s capital, and the hilarious hourlong premiere of “Women of the House” makes the most of its premise — Suzanne Sugarbaker inherits her deceased husband’s seat in the House of Representatives — with the promise of many more laughs to come.
Delta Burke returns as the character she played — excuse me, was born to play — on “Designing Women.” After a much-publicized falling out, brief detour to “Delta” on ABC and subsequent truce with Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and Harry Thomason, Burke is back on CBS, and better, as the outrageously plain-spoken former beauty queen.
“I’m back, and I’m bad,” Suzanne declares, “and this time I’m staying for good.”
Die-hard fans of “Designing Women” are sure to check this out, and if writer Bloodworth-Thomason can sustain the high-velocity, sharp-tongued wit of the premiere, she’ll have a hit on her hands when the show settles into its regular half-hour timeslot at 8 p.m. Wednesdays.
(The first half-hour episode, which after a slow start is almost as funny as this premiere, airs at 8:30 p.m. Monday and hints at possible future appearances by Dixie Carter as Suzanne’s “Designing” sister, Julia. A different half-hour episode airs in the regular Wednesday slot Jan. 11.)
The format is not unlike that of the original “Women”– a core ensemble, perhaps more perfectly cast this time around, of four women and a man. Even art director Ken Johnson’s main set, the congresswoman’s office, has functional similarities to the Sugarbaker design firm.
Warming up for Burke’s entrance, supporting players establish their chemistry almost immediately.
Teri Garr pours delightfully into place as a boozing reporter-turned-press secretary who gets her facts confused but has an uncanny flair for unexpected irony.
Patricia Heaton maintains a tightly wrapped, wry decorum (sound familiar?) as an administrative aide. Valerie Mahaffey brings just the right amount of spaciness as a housewife in her first job outside the home. Jonathan Banks adds a dimension of male daffiness as Suzanne’s retarded brother, a shameless but mostly effective echo of “Forrest Gump.” Brittany Parkyn rounds out the regular cast as Suzanne’s young, adopted daughter, Desiree.
Jokes fly about everything from gays in the military to Sen. Bob Packwood, with sly digs at the press and Washington’s worship of guile over integrity. Director Thomason keeps things moving fast and furiously, no small feat in a sitcom stretched to an hour.
Michael Kinsley and John Sununu look bewildered (don’t they always?) when Burke appears on “Crossfire.” Among several other things, Suzanne boasts about her cleavage, prompting Heaton’s character to quip, “This town hasn’t seen a pair of boobs like that since Haldeman and Erlichman.”
Burke’s character says a lot of outrageous things, and some of the jokes may not be everyone’s cup of tea, especially when the script plays retardation for laughs. But in the time of “Gump” and “Dumb and Dumber,” this may be an unreasonable quibble.
Segment with Burke and Parkyn lip-synching vigorously to Jennifer Holliday from “Dreamgirls” seems a tad belabored, as does Suzanne’s speech to the House. A fleeting salute to James Stewart provides a nice touch as the sergeant-at-arms tugs Suzanne off the House floor.
Camerawork by Lennie Evans is fine, editing by Pat Barnett taut.
Selection of tunesmith Shirley Eikhard’s “Something to Talk About” as the show’s opening theme song proves apt as the Thomasons — no strangers, as it happens, to certain goings-on in D.C. — have delivered just that.