Saturday, October 11, 2008

American 'Kath and Kim' scores with critics

Molly Shannon and Selma Blair are two hoots worth a happy holler in NBC's "Kath & Kim," a cleverly funny sitcom debuting tonight after scoring a smash with a different cast in Australia. The show has been painlessly Americanized and might as well be an indigenous creation, armed as it is with wicked, wacky comment on the mores and morals of the mall culture.

The principal theme is Americans' pathological fear of growing old -- not the logical dread of facing retirement during an economic apocalypse, but a deep, crazy dread that goes back further, perhaps to the baby boomers and their veneration of youth as the sweetest of all virtues.

Shannon plays Kath, the divorced mother of Kim, a teenager with pathetically cut-rate values. Kim's recent marriage to the lovably clueless Craig (Mikey Day) is breaking up over such issues as her inability to cook dinner, even when it involves popping a plastic platter into the microwave. "We can't go to Applebee's every night, Kim," Craig beseeches her. "We are not millionaires!"

Although that line was quoted in the promos, it seems fresh again when it pops up in context, probably because the context is full of painfully recognizable leopard-print truths. As Kath, Shannon is obsessed with firming her glutes and thinning her thighs -- continuing to exercise even when other activities claim her time. She tries to put the kibosh on her daughter's plans to move back in with Mom, especially since Kim's room has been turned into a gym.

It's not that Kath wants to be alone. Kath is a walking "loser magnet," according to her daughter, yet has landed a bubbly Mr. Swell named Phil (John Michael Higgins) -- formerly Big Phil until he lost 200 pounds. He also gained great success as the owner of Phil's Sandwich Island (where the menu includes the Wham-Bam-Thank-You-Ham special). Phil greets Kath with a flattering "Hey there, hot stuff" and, introduced to a skeptical Kim, grandly declares: "It's a pleasure to meet the lovely daughter of the lady who rocks my world."

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Kath and Phil are a compatible couple, and a subtly poignant one, too, in their sorry striving to be cool and their steadfast state of denial. They won't acknowledge their ages, much less act them; thus do they end up, in the second episode, dancing up a storm for drag queens and couples in a gay bar called Maneaters. The three transvestites who counsel and commiserate with Kath are so touching and funny that they deserve to be series regulars.

There's something swift and straightforward about the comedy. Its only structural oddity is its occasional alternating voice-overs, during which we hear Kath and Kim's innermost thoughts -- thoughts that are hardly among the most "inner" you've ever heard. If mother and daughter aren't smart, neither are they malicious; if they're thick-headed, at least they're not cold-hearted, not even in how they misguidedly drink a toast to global warming. Yes, this heating-up might burn up polar bears, they agree, but it is good for their tans.

Shannon is one of the great female comic finds of "Saturday Night Live's" third decade (another, Tina Fey, will do more of her Palin playin' in an "SNL" election special an hour after the sitcom tonight). Shannon has gleefully hopped from movie to movie, making mountains from the molehills of tiny parts -- stealing scenes in such comedies as the stunningly funny "Talladega Nights." Blair, who has a long list of credits, might be best remembered as a virginal victim of "Cruel Intentions."

Higgins -- who played David Letterman in the HBO version of Bill Carter's book "The Late Shift" -- is perfect as Phil. As superbly superior as Shannon is (a comparison to Lucille Ball, while inevitable, would not be overreaching), the whole cast shines, and not just in refracted glory. "Kath & Kim" is a frantically tacky fracas.

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