Tuned In: ABC is pregnant with new sitcom 'Underbelly'

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ABC's "Notes From the Underbelly" would probably be a fine concept for a sitcom on Lifetime, but the focus on couples preparing to have a baby seems too narrow for a mainstream broadcast network.

Yes, plenty of TV shows skew toward women, including tonight's "Underbelly" lead-in "Grey's Anatomy," but at least the issues on "Grey's" are often of universal concern. "Underbelly" is about one thing only: Preparing to have children, which seems like it could be a bore for anyone who's already been through it or anyone who has no interest in it. It's the TV equivalent of "chick lit" without dramatic tension because the characters are already married.

Additionally, like so many other single-camera sitcoms this season ("Knights of Prosperity" most notably), "Underbelly" delivers more chuckles than outright laughs. It's another one of those dismissable, disposable, oh-so-slight comedies.

Premiering tonight at 10 after "Grey's" with back-to-back episodes (and moving to 8:30 p.m. next Wednesday ), "Underbelly" follows the baby-making efforts of Lauren (Jennifer Westfeldt) and Andrew (Peter Cambor), who themselves are intrigued by the pregnancy of friends Julie (Melanie Paxson) and Eric (Sunkrish Bala).

There's also a single guy friend, the doofus Danny (Michael Weaver, "The Mullets"), and sarcastic single gal pal Cooper (flat-voiced Rachael Harris, "Fat Actress"), who gets the funniest dialogue as she observes from the sidelines.

"How come once you push out a kid, it's all you can talk about?" Cooper asks. " 'Timmy's head is in the 75th percentile and he just loves tummy time.' What the hell does that even mean?"

As Cooper, Harris breathes comedic life into this show, just not often enough.

Developed by Stacy Traub, who wrote tonight's premiere, and directed by Barry Sonnenfeld ("Maximum Bob"), "Notes" is based on a novel of the same name by Risa Green.

In future episodes, Lauren and Andrew second guess their desire to have a child (too late now, guys) and Julie goes into labor while at a department store perfume counter.

"It's OK," she says to a clerk after her water breaks. "It's not pee, it's amniotic fluid."

Only those in the midst of creating life are likely to want to make an effort to get at this "Underbelly."

'PAINKILLER JANE'

Ratings prove that Sci Fi Channel's core audience is more interested in the pedestrian ("Stargate," "Eureka") than the exemplary ("Battlestar Galactica"), but new series "Painkiller Jane" (10 p.m. tomorrow) strikes a decent balance between the two.

More polished than, say, "The Dresden Files," "Painkiller Jane" borrows heavily from the late "La Femme Nikita" in its de-saturated visual design, club music sound and grrrl power attitude. It's also much less superhero-y and superior to the initial "Jane" pilot that aired as a TV movie in 2005.

Based on a graphic novel of the same name, the first "Jane" pilot -- written and executive-produced by John Harrison, who grew up in Oakland and Oakmont -- starred Emmanuelle Vaugier as a soldier who's exposed to something that makes her indestructible. Both Vaugier and Harrison have been jettisoned for the new "Jane," which stars Kristanna Loken (the Terminatrix in "Terminator 3") as the title character, a DEA agent who gets recruited onto a secret government project to neutralize "neuros," genetically enhanced humans with mind control. On her first mission, Jane takes a tumble that should kill her, but instead she develops mysterious regenerative powers.

In voiceover, Jane explains that she's long felt emotional pain (since the death of her mother when she was a child), and now she's feeling a lot of physical pain, too, when she survives attacks that would kill mere mortals.

It sounds goofier than it plays thanks to Loken's tough-but-vulnerable-on-the-inside performance. Credit also goes to show runner Gil Grant ("24," "NCIS") and a phalanx of unknown Canadian actors in supporting roles, including Rob Stewart as team leader Andre McBride, Noah Danby as the team's sexist smart-aleck and Alaina Huffman as Jane's former DEA agent partner.

In addition to neuro-busting missions of the week, tomorrow's "Jane" pilot suggests there will also be an ongoing story regarding the source of Jane's new power and how the neuros came to exist.

"Painkiller Jane" doesn't soar to the dramatic heights of "Battlestar," but it is a step above some of the network's other programs, a procedural thriller with a sense of humor and stylish action scenes.


TV editor Rob Owen can be reached at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Ask TV questions at www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Q&A.


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