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A Deadly Game of Cat and Mouse -- Tonight, On "Impeachment!"

The hottest show on TV this year doesn't have anything to do with emergency room doctors or paranoid FBI agents or nubile college co-eds with impossibly well-coifed hair making their way through the oft cruel borough of Manhattan. The most eagerly anticipated program of the new season doesn't feature Kelsey Grammer cracking wise or Bo Derek riding a horse or Jimmy Smits checking into the David Caruso suite in that great squadroom in the sky. Hell, the best television program I've seen in a good long while isn't even on network TV.

No, PBS -- the self-funded network that gives us opera singers and documentaries and documentaries about opera singers -- has scored a coup by broadcasting a show that the likes of NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox can only wish they had the nerve to bring to life. Mixing laugh-out-loud hijinks with high-spirited drama, PBS has put together a program that's destined to rank up there with classics like The Honeymooners and The Dick Van Dyke Show and, perhaps, even Mama's Family.

I'm talking, of course, about the smash cult hit Impeachment! The Series.

Perhaps you have yet to catch an episode of Impeachment! It usually airs at odd hours, often during the day, and seems to go on and on with no set time to start and stop. But I happened to flip by last week's installment of Impeachment! and, man, am I hooked. The show has everything I look for in a series: Laughter! Tears! Zany pratfalls! Arcane debates about parliamentary procedure! And, naturally, just a little touch of sex appeal.

Near as I can figure, Impeachment! centers around the lives of loves of about two dozen disparate people who all appear to live in the same, really big house. Henry (Rod Steiger) is the silver-haired, avuncular head of this unruly brood. He's always there, quick with a joke or to smooth over someone's ruffled feathers. And with a rambunctious household like this to keep under control, there's quite a few feathers that need some smoothing!

Take Bob (James B. Sikking), a stuffed shirt from Georgia whose prissy ways make him a prime target for the gang's constant pranks and japes. Or the take-no-guff Maxine (Marla Gibbs), one tough cookie who's always bringing down the house with her outrageous conspiracy theories. My particular favorites are Asa (Gregory Harrison), the resident wheeler-dealer whose get-rich-quick-schemes land the crew in one scrap after another, and belly-acher Charlie (Robert Klein), who, for my money, could be TV's next George Constanza. And then there's Barney (Tom Bosley)), who, from what I gathered, is something of a ladies' man.

The kids on Impeachment! always seem to be at each other's throats over some guy named Bill, who I guess is their landlord or something. The episodes I've seen seem to suggest that Bill is some sort of a rake, and it's up to the crime-stoppers on Impeachment! to nip his nefarious plots in the bud. Bill has never appeared on screen in Impeachment!... sort of like the disembodied voice of Charlie on Charlie's Angels.

A typical episode of Impeachment! centers around the housemates turning a routine squabble into a full-fledged brouhaha. And when these rowdy roustabouts get going, the quips and put-downs fly fast and furious. Why, just the other day, I saw Jimmy (Ed Begley, Jr.) reduce poor put-upon Mel (Julius Carey) to a quivering mass in a knock-down, drag-out fracas about the Constitution.

But beyond the insults and the wrangling and the good-natured tomfoolery, Impeachment! is also careful to impart important life lessons on its impressionable viewers. In the episode I caught Friday afternoon -- "Article Two," I believe it was called -- the moral of the story is that it's never a good idea to lie before a grand jury. Unless you're really, really popular and an effective fund-raiser.

Already, Impeachment! has all the makings of a smash hit. Oh sure, ratings are low, but even the other networks are talking about it. CNN went so far as to produce its own version of Impeachment! It features many of the same characters with two new guys -- Bernie (Steven Williams) and Wolf (Bob Balaban). They start talking whenever there's any dead air or when someone starts droning on about "amending the gentleman's previous motion." Bernie asks Wolf a lot of vaguely worded questions. Wolf responds with some hollow conjecture. Bernie nods.

You may be kicking yourself for missing Impeachment!, but don't you fret -- the show is still on the air. A new episode was to air today, but it got pre-empted for some sort of old war picture.

And of course, the show has been such a hit, that the networks are already talking about a spin-off. This February, the people that brought you Impeachment! will be trying their hands at a second series -- Senate Trial! With all the intrigue, tension, legal mumbo-jumbo and heartwarming adventures of a Saturday matinee, Senate Trial! is guaranteed to draw record audiences.

Because they just don't make shows like that anymore. Not since 1868, at any rate.


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