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Something borrowed, something blue-collar

Everything looks familiar, in an eerie deja view sort of way.

Same junk. Same plastic dishes. Same tag-sale decor.

Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore.

We're certainly not on the fictional Kansas farm of Tom Arnold's new series; it's more like a rundown house in Lanford, Ill. Except for the poker-playing pooches and a screech from the kitchen, all that's missing from Tom is Roseanne. All that's really missing are the laughs.

Tom and Roseanne Arnold's greatest innovation in this much-awaited CBS sitcom may be that they've patented a new TV genre: Franchise Television. Create a success and copy it.

While it works with burgers, TV gets stale. Roseanne remains fresh and funny, Tom is fake from the start. The brilliance of Roseanne Arnold _ whose talent cannot be eclipsed by her off-screen antics _ is that she makes it all look so very real. A millionaire, Roseanne still looks at home in Lanford. The dialogue, the situations and the problems that the Conners face each week are a mirror of America. In a perverse way, Tom makes us appreciate Roseanne even more.

Like a cheap handbag, Tom looks like the original but can't last. The copy-cat humor is hardly a coincidence since both Arnolds created the series.

In the pilot, we meet Tom Graham, confessed "poor white trash," whose big dream is to live on his family's old farm. This is a nifty fantasy in a fast-paced world that can work (remember Field of Dreams?). Tom's farm, however, is next to the town dump and Tom burned the house down so he could build a new dream home by hand. For now, the family lives in what has to be the largest construction trailer in the world, filled with enough cast-offs to make the man who runs the flea market drool. (Isn't there an antique in all that trash? For gosh sakes, cash it in!)

Like all blue-collar television families, the Grahams are poor but happy. Tom's life partner is a brainy wife who never would have married him, let alone bear his five children. Perhaps Tom Arnold has bought into the idea he's dumb: Everybody in the series appears smarter than he, including the cows.

This is the real shame of Tom. It displays a blatant waste of talent. Despite nasty jokes about his ability, Tom Arnold is a savvy, smart man. His biting, satirical Jackie Thomas Show showed promise before ABC canceled it last year, which prompted his jump to CBS. In the ABC series, Arnold fashioned his own skewed view of ego and the entertainment industry _ proving that he's his own man with strong ideas.

Not just a dumb lard-brain of a husband who has to open a Roseanne franchise on a corner near you.

Also Tonight: Don't miss a blistering Law & Order at 10 on WFLA-Ch. 8, appropriately titled Mayhem. In tonight's episode, all detectives Logan and Biscoe have on their mind is a hot Knicks game, but they end up keeping a body count instead. Usually neatly segmented, tonight's action bounces from case to case, ripping storylines from the Bobbitts and the Son of Sam case of the 1970s, when young lovers were found murdered in their parked cars. Law & Order can be heavy-handed when making a point. Tonight, without saying a word, the reality of crime is all too clear.


Tonight at 8:30 on WTVT-Ch. 13

Pilot Grade: C+