Flashback To The Future

It's what you don't see on TV anymore--a clever concept wrapped in a smart pitch. Nick at Nite, the cable network that reruns old sitcoms, decides to produce a new sitcom. Next it forms an alliance with ABC, under which the broadcast network will air episodes of the sitcom a few days before they appear on its cable counterpart. That's smart: Nick at Nite gets to showcase its creation on a much larger stage, while ABC gets new programming without having to pay the development cost. It's also unprecedented. "Hi Honey I'm Home," which debuts July 19, will be the first series produced by a cable channel for one of the three major networks.

Here's the clever part. Given Nick at Nite's retro-video image, what could be more appropriate for its first homegrown product than a sitcom about some characters from an old sitcom? They're the Nielsens, a flamingly '50s family who, upon the cancellation of the TV comedy they inhabit, find themselves yanked into a '90s suburb by the invisible hand of the SRP (Sitcom Relocation Program). Supposedly, the oh-so-nuclear Nielsens are awaiting their show's reinstatement, but their real assignment is to interact with the folks next door--a divorced working mother and her two wise-mouthing sons. Yes, laugh trackers, it's Clash of Cultures time.

Though "Hi Honey, I'm Home" misfires almost as often as it hits (too bad ABC didn't pass along its Rolodex of writers), the originality of its premise goes a long way. The chief combatants are the two matriarchs. Honey Nielsen (Charlotte Booker), the archetypical '50s homemaker, is lacy-aproned and preternaturally perky. Favorite fun time: "Gypsy Goulash Night at the church." Expletive of choice: "Oh, pooh!" In the opposite corner is Elaine Duff (Susan Cella), the Nielsens' single-mother neighbor, who sprays feminist invective like a human Uzi. This pair was not born to bond. When Elaine circulates a petition supporting "a woman's right to choose," Honey chirps: "Choose what?" Snarls Elaine: "Her silver pattern." Later, Honey gets a first glimpse of her neighbor's defiantly messy living room. "What kind of animal would do a thing like this?" she gasps.

Somewhere between the night the boss comes to dinner and the day the pie vanishes from the open kitchen window, Honey discovers the joys of contemporary existence: the homeless problem, radiated dinners, raincoated flashers and Mace. Elaine, meanwhile, learns to accept alien life forms, even one that reveres the tuna casserole. This sitcom comes with a nifty and fitting technical touch. Whenever Honey becomes bewildered by her new surroundings, she punches a remote-control gizmo that transforms her world (along with the show) from color to black and white. Naturally, it's called a "Turnerizer."

As it happens, the Nick-ABC deal is a preview of the future. To pare production costs and expand their audience reach, the broadcast and cable networks are starting to embrace the once heretical notion of programming partnerships. Fox Broadcasting has purchased two upcoming sitcoms from HBO; CBS is talking to TBS about buying some of its made-for-cable movies, and NBC is considering running a daytime shopping show developed by the Home Shopping Network. As for "Hi Honey, I'm Home," one can't help wishing that the Sitcom Relocation Program also operated in reverse. Imagine June Cleaver answering the doorbell to find--all primed and ready to detonate--Roseanne Conner.

Aw, pooh.