Whether it succeeds or fails, appreciation of CBS' new comedy "Accidentally on Purpose" is certain to be a referendum on star Jenna Elfman. I'm not referring to aspects of her personal and spiritual life that inevitable arise in comment sections whenever she's mentioned. I'm talking bare bones: Do you think Jenna Elfman is funny?

My answer to that question is that I loved the first half of the first season of "Dharma & Greg." Well, maybe "loved" is too strong a word, but Elfman's flighty, free-spirited Dharma was a wholly original character and Elfman gave her an unfamiliar and effective set of mannerisms.

Elfman has subsequent given the same set of mannerisms to every character she's played, whether or not they had anything to do with the character in question, so fatigue set in long ago.

"Accidentally on Purpose" is all about Elfmam, who scarcely misses a shot, much less a scene and, for reasons best known to pilot director Pamela Fryman, Elfman has been allowed to indulge her every hammy instinct. That's why if you love Jenna Elfman, you're probably going to love "Accidentally on Purpose."

If you don't? Monday (Sept. 21) night's premiere, after "How I Met Your Mother" on CBS, will be the perfect time to switch your DVR over to watch the two-hour "House" premiere sans commercials.

Me? I recommend the latter.

[Review of "Accidentally on Purpose" after the break...]

Elfman plays Billie, the 37-year-old film critic at a San Francisco newspaper. Recently burned by her commitment-phobic boss, Billie embarks on a fling with a much younger man, Jon Foster's Zack, an aspiring chef. Within nine minutes, Billie's pregnant and within 12 minutes, she's decided to keep both the baby and the boy toy.

After attempting something different last fall with the single-camera farce "Worst Week," "Accidentally on Purpose" is back to familiar ground for the network. Since audiences never knew when to laugh at "Worst Week" (something the show often didn't help with), "Accidentally on Purpose" is reassuringly laff-track (or "studio audience") driven.

CBS likes to emphasize that "Accidentally on Purpose" is based on the memoir by Mary F. Pols, as if a factual foundation makes the comedy's plot more plausible, its characters more sympathetic and its overall milieu more of-the-moment.

"Accidentally on Purpose," which beats ABC's "Cougar Town" to the screen by a few days, is the crest of a wave, because network TV executives are fairly sure that older-women/younger-men pairings are a trend they can exploit. Everybody is quick to say that older men have been partnering up with younger women for decades (centuries? eternity?). The different I'd point out, not a value judgment so much as a judgment on representation: The writerly convention says that men don't discuss their feelings, so an older man with a younger woman will obviously be having a midlife crisis and tapping the Fountain of Youth and all that stuff, but he'll rarely have to have long, gushy conversations with his friends wherein he explains the themes and subtext of his carnal appetites. In our new wave of cougar antics, such excessive explication is apparently mandatory.

Today's television cougars come equipped with sassy friends, who all have either done the cougar thing before or are just eager to serve as mentors to our fledgling cougars. These supporting roles are generally more meaty than the leads, who are too wide-eyed and excited by their new conquests.

That's why Ashley Jensen is the reason to watch "Accidentally on Purpose," were such a reason to exist. It isn't just that everything vaguely funny becomes far funnier when said with a Scottish accent, but Jensen's been stealing scenes from "Ugly Betty" to "Extras" to a wide assortment of British productions that never made it to these shores. She's not subtle either, but it's tempting to ponder why nobody thought to let her play the lead role here. She makes not-funny lines funny, though part of that is, I guess, that the word "ocelot" is many times cooler when it becomes Scottish.

In contrast, Elfman actually seems to be draining the humor from her dialogue and situations. Watching the effort she puts into being funny (or attempting) is exhausting. Her desperation is grating. She doesn't just shrug. She contorts herself into a human "W." When somebody's coming she doesn't want to see, she doesn't hide in a corner. She drops to the floor like a marine under heavy fire. When she first kisses her boy toy, her reaction isn't a small sigh. She lets out a squeal that would cause dogs in Kansas to howl. And every once in a while, I swear I heard lines in the script that might have hit if they'd been delivered with timing and tact. There's a time and place for classic slapstick (if you're generous enough to say that's what Elfman's doing). This isn't it.

Elfman is so aggressive that she may be scaring Foster. Or maybe he was just directed to underplay so that she could go wild. Or maybe the writers forgot that "Accidentally on Purpose" can only work if it's a true two-hander and the male lead's presence is justified. Either way, Foster hardly registers. Foster also underplayed himself into invisibility on ABC's "Life As We Know It," making me wonder if his acting style is an active response to brother Ben's scenery chewing. 

In the pilot, Zack has two or three different "young" friends (this means they play "Grand Theft Auto" and don't appear to shave), but all signs point to most of them being eliminated in favor of Nicolas Wright's Davis. I'm not sure if that's good or bad, except that for a brief period, CBS might have risked having an African-American regular on one of its Monday comedies, a fate the network may have dodged once again.

Although "The Critic" was a classic show, movie criticism isn't exactly the most series-ready of professions (nor is music criticism as audiences told CBS after "Love Monkey"). Fortunately, Billie's job only manifests itself through a single Meg Ryan joke and the movie posters on her wall. If "Accidentally on Purpose" gets cancelled soon, we won't have to see if newspaper cutbacks lead to Billie losing her job before or after her baby is born. By Season Three, Billie's sure to be a stay-at-home blogger and people will want to watch that version of "Accidentally on Purpose" even less than its current incarnation.

 

 

"Accidentally on Purpose" premieres on CBS on Monday, Sept. 21 at 8:30 p.m.