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Rooting for 'Bonnie'

Bonnie Hunt's new sitcom has promise, but then, so did her other shows.

by Mark D. Johnson
September 19, 2002

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Rooting for 'Bonnie'_Mark D. Johnson-Bonnie Hunt's new sitcom has promise, but then, so did her other shows. Bonnie Hunt deserves a sitcom show, and network executives seem to agree with me because they keep giving her one despite her past failure to find an audience. A handful of viewers might remember her two prior shows, "The Building" and "Bonnie," fleeting though they were. And while the particulars of those shows may be a little vague in their minds, they most likely remember Bonnie herself and the unique style of dialogue that has permeated each series. She brings a freshness to a genre that seems stuck in tradition, as networks generally opt for safe, generic comedies that shy away from any form of creativity lest viewers be turned off by something unexpected.

"Life with Bonnie" (Tuesdays at 8:30 ET, ABC) is the latest venture for the Chicago native and Second City alum, who this time plays the host of a local television show, "Morning Chicago," where Bonnie gets to showcase her improvisational talents in unscripted segments with real people (non-actors). Bonnie must balance her busy professional career with a busy home life. She's married to a doctor and has three children (two pre-teens and a toddler), whom they raise with the help of their long-suffering nanny.

It seems unfair that so much depends upon a show's first impression. Pilot episodes often feel like a chore to sit through because so much time must be devoted to the introduction of characters and exposition, and, particularly in the case of a half-hour sitcom, that leaves precious little time for an enjoyable plot. The first episode of "Life with Bonnie" has some of that pilot show awkwardness that, for all its other merits, makes one worry about the show's future. But again, that's just the nature of the beast. We can only hope that its audience will be willing to overlook imperfection and see its considerable potential.

The episode begins with a frantic morning in the Molloy household as the family oversleeps. Bonnie must get the kids ready for school while minding little Connor and trying to get ready for work. She tells daughter Samantha to "eat some toothpaste" for breakfast and winds up wearing her pajama top to work and on her show. The characters at the studio include the uptight producer, the cue card guy, the makeup artist, and the piano playing sidekick, Tony. I liked Tony a lot. The jury is still out on the rest of the cast (aside from Hunt), with the most uncertainty surrounding Charlie, the wise-cracking middle child, played by Charlie Stewart. It's not that he's a bad child actor, but probably has more to do with my constant awareness that he is a kid delivering punch lines as though he were an adult. It's hard to see this character as anything but a younger version of Danny Partridge, right down to the red hair. Samantha, the older sister, comes off much more credibly in her line delivery.

Like her previous efforts, much of "Life with Bonnie" has a lot of overlapping dialogue, which may be off-putting to some viewers, but which I find very interesting. It has more of a realistic rhythm than the more orchestrated approach of the typical TV show. Improvisation, whether in comedy or jazz, carries with it a certain amount of risk that can be both exciting and nerve-wracking. Not everything falls neatly into place, but the overall effect can be something special. Hunt continues to experiment in hope that the masses will someday get it and give her more than five weeks to show us the possibilities. The first real taste of this comes in the first episode when Bonnie interacts with some Italian chefs on "Morning Chicago." It very much feels like an actual live-on-tape talk show with a witty host, and while some bits fall a little flat, we quickly forgive the brief lapses as we do with Regis or Letterman because we're confident in the host's sense of humor and we appreciate the quick wit required to make unscripted comedy entertaining.

I don't mean to give the impression that this is a radical, groundbreaking show in the sense you can argue "Seinfeld" was. There are plenty of traditional sitcom elements here. We get a laugh track, but thank goodness no live studio audience (with the possible exception of some of the studio scenes). The work life/family life routine is hardly new to situation comedy. It is similar in its risk-taking to last spring's "Watching Ellie," the Julia Louis Dreyfuss vehicle on NBC that featured a real-time, 22-minute plot. (Incidentally, both actresses have a fine singing voice, and that talent is put to use on both shows.) A retooled "Ellie" returns this winter without the real-time format. One wonders if the execs were getting nervous, or if the experiment was just too much to pull off at the end of the day. "Bonnie" seems more likely to remain intact, with perhaps Hunt's best shot at a full season yet, thanks in part to a weak network with nothing to loose. ABC's ratings can't possibly get any worse than last season, right?

Random TV Notes:
  • "Boomtown" appears to be the standout show among new fall dramas, premiering Sunday, September 29 at 10/9 PM. The stylish crime show will unfold its plot from various points of view.

  • "Survivor: Thailand" debuts tonight, and producer Mark Burnett claims that the competitions are 90% new this time around. I'll believe that when I see it, but the show still has legs and is well worth a gander. If you only have time for one reality show this fall, however, I'd go for "The Amazing Race 3" on CBS, which premieres October 2.

  • Next week begins the (believed-to-be) last season for ratings giant "Friends." Will it jump the shark before it's too late? Or has it already?

  • For those who really miss "Twin Peaks," Ben Affleck and friend Sean Bailey have produced an eerily similar show called "Push, Nevada," which debuted immediately after "Life with Bonnie," but is moving to it's new time slot tonight at 9/8 Central. The pilot will be rebroadcast at 8/7 PM. If you're really into it, you can also win a lot of money by solving hidden clues. I'm not sure I'm up for this. There's a fine line between cool and stupid, and having devoted only a fraction of my attention to the pilot, I'm not sure where this one falls. I'm not sure what happened, and I'm not sure I care.

Comments (1)

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Rod Scopint from Chicago, IL writes:
September 20, 2002
I agree with Mr. Johnson's assessment of Life with Bonnie. I think the show's best bits are when Bonnie Hunt improvises on her show. I really found the maid character abbraisive and downright mean towards the children, not funny at all. I already hope she gets replaced. The rest of the show seemed pretty good to me.

As for Mr. Johnson's view on Push, Nevada, the show seems to confuse weirdness with hip-ness. It seems like it would be a good show, it they would just stop with the weird camera angles and esoteric gobbledy-gook. There is a fine line between being off-center and intriguing and being too weird and unfollowable. Hopefully Push will figure that out.

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