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Fall 2000: "Nikki"

Nikki, the new sitcom on The WB, begins promisingly enough when auburn-haired series star Nikki Cox appears on screen dancing in a shiny green bikini.

Rare are the times that a form of creative endeavor comes up with so evocative an establishing shot -- Orson Welles clutching a snow globe in "Citizen Kane," William Holden floating face down in a swimming pool in "Sunset Boulevard," Sheryl Lee's body wrapped in plastic on Twin Peaks. Could Nikki rise to the level of artistic achievement reached by those other masterworks? Could it fulfill the promise of grandeur hinted at it in its opening moments?

Soon, however, Cox is wearing both pants and a t-shirt, and the disappointed viewer is left to mourn what might have been.

"I'm not a stripper. I'm a dancer," Cox says in a line that simultaneously offers expository information about her character while twisting the knife in the hearts of her male admirers. "I'm not a stripper-dancer, but a dancer-dancer."

And at this point, the heartbroken viewer must conclude that Nikki is, in fact, the worst show ever.

Actually -- disappointment over seeing Nikki suitably dressed aside -- it's not as bad as all that. Oh, Nikki isn't very good -- we are talking about a WB sitcom here -- but it doesn't set any land-speed records for awful. Nikki is rather quite inoffensive in its blandness. Sure, it's tripe, but it doesn't claim to be anything else, and no animals were harmed in the making of this show, so lighten up, OK? They can't all be gems, folks.

Which is a shame, really, because Nikki Cox deserves a better showcase for her talents. Once you get past the tawny tresses, the 1,000-watt smile, the pneumatic body proportions -- and it took me several hours and a couple of stiff drinks, believe me -- you'll see that Nikki Cox is actually a promising comedic actress. She was the best thing about the wretched Happily Ever After. She had a great guest-spot on The Drew Carey Show. She even acquitted herself nicely on Norm, a show that makes the living envy the dead.

Nikki Cox has a fine sense of comic timing, a winning on-screen presence and the skill to rise above the pedestrian material she's been saddled with to date. One day, some quick-thinking producer will smack his forehead mid-power lunch and say, "Damnit! We've been wasting our lives trying to build sitcoms around Kirstie Alley and Bette Midler and Christine-freakin'-Baranski. Let's give that nice Nikki Cox gal a halfway decent show to work on so Michaels won't have to watch her on TV with the lights dimmed and the shades drawn to keep the neighbors from seeing while he rocks back and forth murmuring, "Unclean... unclean..." and--

Um... Perhaps I've said too much.

Nikki centers on the wacky adventures of the pulchritudinous Cox and her gi-normous husband, Dwight, played by the gi-normous Nick von Esmarch. The pilot episode recapped how these two crazy kids met. Nikki crashed Dwight's going-on-off-to-college party and stowed away in his car because she needed a ride to Vegas. Dwight's headed to Pepperdine, see, where he's going to major in "corporate tax law" (with a minor, no doubt, in "contrived TV major"), and Nikki needs to get to Las Vegas to audition as a dancer -- a dancer-dancer, mind you, and not the other, more telegenicly interesting form of dancing. Somewhere on the road to Malibu, she convinces Dwight to ditch college and go to professional wrestling school, also conveniently located in Las Vegas. None of this sits too well with Dwight's mom, who has a hard time digesting the news that: 1) her son is ditching college for the glamorous life of pro wrestling; 2) sonny boy also married a woman he just met at a party; and 3) Nikki Cox is fully clothed throughout the episode.

Oh wait. I'm the one who's having a problem with that last one.

Much of the remainder of Nikki's pilot -- and, in all likelihood, all future episodes -- deals with Nikki and Dwight and Mom and their hilarious quarrels. Nikki thinks Dwight needs to follow his dreams. Mom thinks Nikki needs to get lost. Dwight thinks they should all just try to get along.

Philip thinks Nikki shouldn't have ditched that shiny green bikini five minutes into the episode.

Von Esmarch does a surprisingly good job as Dwight, keeping pace with Cox in the comic timing department. Sadly, the two have very little on-screen chemistry, leading me to conclude that von Esmarch must have died halfway through shooting the pilot.

Fresh off her triumph as Mary Todd Lincoln in The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer, Christine Estabrook portrays Mom. Whoever advises her on what roles to take needs to stop.

The actors aren't the problem here. They do the best they can with what they have to work with. Sadly, what they have to work with is slop, straight out of a Sitcom Writing 101 seminar where a typical Wings episode would be dismissed as "too highbrow." Nothing can rescue material like that. Not good comic timing. Not believable on-screen chemistry.

Not even Nikki Cox in that shiny green bikini. And if that can't make the world right, what hope do the rest of us have?


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