The Caroline Rhea Show

Hopefully, soon, more viewers will sample The Caroline Rhea Show and it will survive and thrive. She and her show are utter charmers. Unfortunately, though, the show has the cast of a hand-me-down and that may keep viewers away. When Rosie O’Donnell announced she was quitting her daily talk show and named her replacement, comic and actor Caroline Rhea, there was little fanfare (ex-comic Jenny Jones got more coverage when she started). Rhea’s had to compete for headlines with Rosie (thanks to the legal battles over her self-named magazine) and the Oprah-affiliated Dr. Phil’s fast-out-of-the-gate, highly rated daytime debut. And so, sadly, Rhea is getting little attention.

Warner Brothers, producer of both Rhea and Dr. Phil’s programs, only has themselves to blame for this. They tried to make the transition between the two shows/hosts as seamless as possible — near the end of Rosie’s run, she was regularly taking every Friday off and having Rhea fill in — but it would have been more effective to let Rosie come to a full stop and then launch Caroline Rhea as a new entity. But since Warners did not do this, The Caroline Rhea Show is now left with the connotation of second best, a weak substitute, maybe even a step down. (Of course, it doesn’t help the situation that Rhea’s set, in terms of both its colors and layout, is nearly a replica of O’Donnell’s old one. Couldn’t Warner Brothers at least pitch in for a new coat of paint?)

Another factor adding to the uphill struggle is that Rhea is not as well known as Rosie was when she started her show. Rosie, thanks to hit films like A League of Their Own and her high profile friendship with Madonna, was already on the map, celebrity-wise. By contrast, most of Rhea’s following is the youthful fans of Sabrina, The Teenage Witch, on which Rhea played one of Melissa Joan Hart’s two aunts. As Rhea tells People magazine, “I may not be famous to adults, but I’m Elvis if you’re under 12.” Unfortunately, most under-12-year-olds are in school and not home watching daytime TV.

Furthermore, when Rosie began daytime talking, her format that was more Merv than Montel. And so, it stood out as something different amidst the cesspool of daytime confession-and-spectacle. But with Rhea now carrying on the same formula, a celebrity-focused, couch-based chat fest, she doesn’t carry the cachet of reviving a lost format or bringing “niceness” back to daytime.

Rhea may not have come on with the same bombast that O’Donnell did, but, in a way, that’s what makes her a winner. As a host, Rhea has an insouciant appeal, a pleasant down-to-earthness that makes her a welcome respite, not only from other talk shows currently on the air, but also from the often shrill and overbearing tone that Rosie eventually developed. Rhea has a sort of “Gee-whiz-I-can’t-believe-I-have-my-own-talk-show-so-let’s-have-fun” vibe. It’s like your little sister or that really fun girl from homeroom stumbled into the studio and they decided to give her a show.

It helps that Rhea is pretty fearless as a comic, not in an Andrew Dice Clay sort of way, where you can only appear on MTV late at night until they ban you for something, but in that she’s not afraid to go for the joke, even when it doesn’t work (as it usually does not, so far, in her brief opening monologues which are getting slower by the day).

No matter what happens, you don’t really mind; she delivers her punch lines with such an open, goofy sense of fun you still laugh with her, not at her. And she can be very funny. When Bally’s Health Club recently donated a free treadmill/ski machine to her after she attempted (and failed) to call a Bally’s on the show, Rhea theorized, “Maybe I should have called a car dealership.” No health nut, Rhea later said about the machine, “My clothes are going to look so good hanging on this.”

Even previous to this exchange, Bally’s had been a running gag on Rhea’s show. A week prior, she had attempted to call, live on the air, one of the Bally’s in Miami (to see if all the gym TVs were tuned to her show). Her first attempt resulted in a wrong number and a very short talk with a very grumpy Floridian. Later, her attempts resulted in busy signals and recorded messages. How Rhea turned this embarrassing technical glitch into comedic gold was a lesson in how to turn a negative into a positive.

Thanks to such occasional on-air foibles (the show is broadcast everyday live from New York), Rhea emerges as one-of-us. She connects with her audience, the same way that Oprah did before she got really, really rich and then decided to “remember her spirit,” or the way Rosie did before she decided her job was to assert her personal causes and not be, you know, an entertainer. Rhea, by comparison, isn’t dragging any political or social agenda with her. Which is not to say that she isn’t charitable. Like her immediate predecessor, Rhea’s always doing on-air plugs for events and causes. But she realizes her show doesn’t have to save the world — we’ve got Oprah for that — and her humility is refreshing.

Also refreshing, the show is not attempting to break any new ground. It’s just like Rosie’s old mix of chitchat and some cooking or crafting segments, usually played for laughs. I don’t think Barbara Walters has to worry about Caroline taking over one of her specials, but Rhea does have an interviewing knack all her own, a sort of Faye Emerson-esque gift for keeping the party conversation going. So far, she’s also been able to snare some interesting and entertaining guests with whom to converse, including Christopher Reeve, Susan Sarandon, David Schwimmer, Ron Howard, and Chrissie Hynde (yes, Chrissie Hynde).

Sure there’s a little tweaking that still needs to be done: why can’t Caroline dress up a little bit more? And, so far, bandleader Carlos Alomar hasn’t gotten much to do but smile and nod. But he does do a wonderful job of playing the show’s theme song, an instrumental of the Neil Diamond oldie, “Sweet Caroline.” And, by the way, it’s a good choice: it’s not a hand-me-down from Rosie and it describes its host to a T.