It is rare that primetime auds are treated with quite as much disdain as is apparent in this shamefully misguided UPN farce, which curiously attempts to draw lascivious parallels between the libidinal Clinton administration and that of Abe Lincoln.
“The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer” (or “Pa-Fifer,” since the P isn’t silent) is not, as recent protests would have us believe, a send-up of slavery. Even that would be an improvement on what we wind up getting in the opening pair of episodes: “There’s Something About Mary Todd (And It Ain’t Healthy),” with heaping helpings of Clinton-Lewinsky (circa 1863).
After the strident protests from some African-American groups that the show trivialized slavery, which encited the L.A. City Council to call for a delay of the preem, UPN is putting off the airing of the pilot and instead broadcasting the second episode.
Set in the Lincoln White House, if not quite the Lincoln bedroom, “Desmond Pfeiffer” stars the generally charismatic Chi McBride in the title role. He’s an exiled black Englishman who becomes a trusted confidante to Abe (Dann Florek) and an unwitting object of passion for the eternally horny, emotionally unstable First Lady Mary Todd (Christine Estabrook). Desmond keeps a journal of everything he sees, which is evidently considerable.
Rounding out this motley White House crew is a bumbling manservant named Nibblet (Max Baker), a raging alcoholic version of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant (Kelly Connell) and a buxom, appropriately dense blonde secretary named Mona (Cindy Ambuehl), who exists to be leered at.
Exec producers/writers Mort Nathan and Barry Fanaro, who lent their comedic talents to “The Golden Girls,” misfire on all cylinders in a repugnant opening teleplay that features lines like “The president is having sex with someone who works at the White House? Preposterous!” And then there’s this gem: “I’m afraid the fire’s gone out of the old Lincoln log.”
The grossness, classlessness and leering of this bizarre period piece continues unabated into episode two, which airs Monday and actually looks a lot like the pilot, anyway, where President Lincoln has online sex (in this case over a telegraph!) and Mary Todd is shown to be a 1990s sort of gal.
What test audience assured UPN that it would be wise to bestow a series order onto this? The best one can say for “Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer” is that it represents a radical departure from the single dad/clueless grownups sitcom trends of fall ’98. And the theme music from Scott Gale and Rich Eames as well as the opening visuals sparkle.
Show has the gall to open with a quote from Civil War historian Shelby Foote, with a narrator then intoning in “Start the Revolution Without Me” style, “Everything that follows actually happened. You can’t prove that it didn’t.”
One can only hope that before long, it will be difficult to prove this sitcom ever happened.