What would happen if Doogie Howser had to work with Stephen King? Never thought about it? You will now, thanks to this intermittently amusing new comedy blessed with what may turn out to be a deceptively challenging timeslot. How can “Stark Raving Mad” miss, launching as it does in the “Must See TV” equivalent of paradise (between “Frasier” and “ER” on Thursday nights at 9:30)?
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 arguably past their primes. And, perhaps smelling a little blood, the competition has improved dramatically, no longer conceding the night. “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.
Competition is an issue as “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 one 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: Neil Patrick Harris (“Doogie Howser, M.D.”) plays Henry McNeely, a fastidious, superneurotic New York book editor with germ issues who is forced to “unblock” 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 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.