New 11-week HBO comedy series conceived, written and co-executive produced by actor-comedian Robert Wuhl, who also stars, aspires to be the “Larry Sanders” of the sports agentry racket and mostly succeeds with cynically outlandish gusto, blurring the reality lines while rendering a fresh new antihero for the ’90s in superagent Arliss Michaels.
Filmed in Los Angeles by Tollin Robbins Prods. Executive producers, Robert Wuhl, Michael Tollin, Brian Robbins; co-executive producer, Roger Director; producer, Timothy Marx; director, Andrew Wolk; writer, Wuhl; Tone is set early on for the show’s Sanders-esque sense of reality confusion, with Wuhl, as the at-once unctuous, generous and transparently dollar-driven Arliss, being honored at a dinner of the Give-a-Damn! Foundation as its “Man of Our Times” (a title for which Arliss had to pony up $ 150,000). On the dais with Arliss are Jim Palmer, Bob Costas and Ann Meyers-Drysdale.
With Wuhl/Arliss narrating stories lifted from his fictitious autobiography, “Arliss: The Art of the Sports Superagent,” the opening half-hour, “Man of Our Times,” is a bit uneven at points but moves with a brisk comic timing in the last third, once Wuhl relaxes.
Arliss is both a remorseless shark in the boardroom and a hapless wet nurse for his immature clients, who include a defensive back with a propensity toward expensive sports cars and paternity suits and a male figure-skating star who wants to marry his new gay lover at center ice on opening night of a forthcoming tour.
Show has an irresistible farcical tenor that’s enhanced by the presence of so many sports icons playing themselves. Dallas Cowboy owner Jerry Jones parodies himself masterfully, eating a bowl of puffed rice at breakfast and assuring Arliss that it’s perfectly permissible to kick a man when he’s down. “How do you think I bought this team?” Jones asks.
And after figure-skating star Elizabeth Manley expresses concern to Arliss that perhaps she is looking a tad chunky these days, she exits a workout with, “Anyway, I gotta go throw up.”
“Arli$$” really hits its stride, however, in episode two, “Negotiating: It’s Never Personal,” when Arliss — so dejected by a turn for the worse in his fortunes that he has taken to swilling Pepto Bismol on the rocks — is saved from chronic acid indigestion when a potential dream client descends from the heavens.
In order to cozy up to him, Arliss strikes a deal with the pastor of the church attended by the unrepresented basketball star and his naive mother. It takes him away from such bum clients as the pitcher who won just one game last season but is demanding a raise from $ 1 million to $ 2 million. When he has to sign for $ 750,000, the hurler’s snap reaction isn’t pretty.
Jim Turner co-stars in “Arli$$” as Kirby Carlisle, the firm’s second-in-command and a former pro quarterback with a serious gambling addiction who is no doubt patterned on onetime Ohio State standout Art Shlichter. Sandra Oh is marvelous as Rita Woo, the brassy but plugged-in assistant.
With pro sports salaries skyrocketing into the $ 100 million-plus stratosphere, could a comedy centering on a big-time sports agentry possibly be timed any better?