At least on paper, this half-hour would practically need to trash the memory of Mother Teresa and promote the agenda of the Aryan Nation to avoid landing in the household ratings top 10. Ah, but mitigating factors abound. “Frasier” and “ER” are both arguably past their primes. And the competition has improved dramatically, no longer conceding the night, and perhaps even smelling a little blood. “Stark Raving Mad” is no slam-dunk when the opposition includes the high-profile new Fox satire “Action,” the rejiggered “Chicago Hope,” the WB hit “Charmed” and — never laugh at a ratings winner — professional wrestling on UPN.
This is brought up because “Stark Raving Mad” is nothing very special. Its few real laughs look almost like accidents, since the premise itself strains plausibility. And unlike creator/executive producer Steven Levitan’s other NBC shows (“Frasier” and “Just Shoot Me”), this lacks anything resembling magic.
In fact, “Stark Raving Mad” (did the focus groups tell NBC that it must continue to carry a comedy on its schedule with “Mad” in the title?) is pretty much a one-joke wonder. And here’s the joke: Neil Patrick Harris (“Doogie Howser , M.D.”) is a fastidious, super-neurotic New York book editor with germ issues named Henry McNeely who is forced to “un-block” an eccentric bestselling horror novelist named Ian Stark (Tony Shalhoub of “Wings” and “Big Night” fame).
That’s pretty much the whole shebang. It’s “The Odd Couple” in Hell. One guy is certifiably bonkers, the other’s a classic Type A nervous nelly. They blend about as well as “Stark Raving Mad” does with “Frasier” in the 9 o’clock hour. Pilot director James Burrows takes what he’s handed and works to at least make it irreverent, inspiring a pilot loaded with slapstick and sight gags to help juice Levitan’s mediocre teleplay.
Second episode is funnier than the first, yet still reduces itself to Charlie Sheen jokes for its comic fuel. Harris and Shalhoub are both highly capable, charismatic performers; unfortunately, “Stark Raving Mad” has, as a comedy vehicle, less in common with “Frasier,” “Just Shoot Me” and “Friends,” and more with “The Single Guy” and “Caroline in the City.” It’s too bad, because Harris and Shalhoub are both highly capable, charismatic performers. But it seems they will need to shine elsewhere.