Looking to cultivate a television following during the hours when a majority of Americans are still awake, Arsenio Hall leaps into his first starring sitcom role portraying what may be the most self-absorbed and insensitive husband in the solar system.
The result in the “Arsenio” pilot is a show that is so busy mining gender and familial stereotypes that it forgets to give its characters genuine emotions. Push this button for male bonding. Push that one for the young woman who says yes when she means no and no when she means yes. One more button and presto, here comes the meddling, cloying sibling.
Good-natured but laughless, “Arsenio” casts Hall — who built a mini-dynasty with young America through his highly successful syndicated latenight talker, which completed its five-year run in May 1994 — as Michael Atwood, a loosey-goosey on-air announcer for an all-sports cable network operating out of Atlanta.
Michael is newly married to the beautiful Vivian (Vivica A. Fox), an attorney who hogs the bed and snores and allows her lazybones younger brother Matthew (Alimi Ballard) to live with, and mooch off of, them.
We love this woman.
In the premiere, Vivian gets all kinds of bummed out when she’s passed over for a major job promotion. Michael reacts by more or less telling her to get a handle on it while rushing off to a sports bar with his best pal, Al (Kevin Dunn), to eat gravy fries, suck suds, smoke cigars and do everything “male” but shave, pump iron and perform yardwork.
Vivian is left to pour out her grief to Laura (Shawnee Smith), her wacky friend with the bleached-blond punk ‘do. She wonders why Michael would leave her, even if she told him she wanted to be alone. Doesn’t he know that’s just a woman for ya?
It gets worse after Michael comes home and decides to act even jerkier. He appears to be a tad sketchy on the therapeutic benefits of a hug. Vivian finally teaches him.
Creator and executive producer David Rosenthal, who was ousted after three episodes following an infamous tiff with Hall, penned the pilot but obviously did Arsenio no favors. He clutters the opener with stock characters and situations that leave no improvisational room.
Moreover, Hall (who also exec produces) comes across here as immensely flighty and shallow, seemingly struggling to get comfortable with the idea of being cast as a hubby. He enjoys little chemistry with Fox, who tries awfully hard to make it work.
Dunn is the best of the co-stars. But you wonder why the leads’ best friends here are both white. Is that likely, or is it merely a device designed to establish just how purposefully interracial the show is?
Thomas Schlamme’s direction in the pilot is solid. Tech credits are swell across the board. Show itself, however, is in glaring need of a humor transplant.
Maybe things will get better in episode four, following the change at the top. If not, for Arsenio, there’s always latenight. Fox looks as if it could use a decent program there.