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Ellen Gray: 'Knight Rider' delivers plenty of cheese

KNIGHT RIDER. 8 tonight, Channel 10. IT'S TOUGH for me to make fun of NBC's "Knight Rider," a show about a talking car that's based on that '80s show about a talking car.

KNIGHT RIDER. 8 tonight, Channel 10.

IT'S TOUGH for me to make fun of NBC's "Knight Rider," a show about a talking car that's based on that '80s show about a talking car.

And not just because the version that premieres tonight is the one that doesn't star David Hassellhoff.

I never watched that other "Knight Rider," having had my heart broken as a small child by the cancellation of "My Mother the Car," a splendid but apparently widely misunderstood show that decades of TV critics would cite as shorthand for television that fulfilled Newton Minow's description of a "vast wasteland."

Now, of course, we have "According to Jim," and the world is once again a safe place for cars with something to say.

Or so thinks NBC, which, realizing that lots of our cars talk these days - my husband's named the voice of our GPS "Hecuba" and we're convinced she hates us - set out to do something really special with KITT (Knight Industries Three Thousand).

Some would say that special thing was to turn "Knight Rider" into a Ford commercial.

But that's silly.

Because I'm pretty sure Ford doesn't make a car with artificial intelligence and Val Kilmer's voice, much less one that can transform itself from a sporty sedan to a pickup in less time than it takes most cars to get from 0 to 60. That's just the kind of feature that could make your next trip to Ikea a lot more fun, but "Knight Rider" is too intent tonight on creating conditions in which two of its human stars - Justin Bruening and Deanna Russo - will be forced to strip to their underwear, at the car's strong urging, to demonstrate KITT's more practical uses.

There are people for whom an hour a week spent watching an attractive couple race around in a sleek car wearing only underwear would be that week's happiest hour, and I refuse to make fun of them, or of "Knight Rider," a show that delivers every ounce of cheese its package promises, if not the recommended daily allowance of calcium.

But to those picky viewers who insist that the plots and characters in their thrillers be at least as believable as the vehicles they rode in on, I can say only that your mileage may vary.

More like 'Gary Unfunny'

Paula Marshall's a fine and funny actress, but she's developed a reputation as a bit of a show-killer, thanks to string of disasters - "Hidden Hills," "Snoops," "Cursed," "Out of Practice," to name a few - that probably weren't her fault.

I mean, you call a show "Cursed," you take your chances.

And, hey, not all Marshall's choices have been bad ones.

"Cupid" may have died before its time, but if it had succeeded, Jeremy Piven might not have those three Emmys for HBO's "Entourage." And the concept remains intriguing enough that ABC has "Cupid" creator Rob Thomas remaking it - sans Marshall and Piven - for midseason.

It's hard to imagine anyone feeling that kind of undying passion for Marshall's latest project, "Gary Unmarried" (8:30 tonight, Channel 3), in which she co-stars as the humorless ex-wife of Gary Brooks (Jay Mohr), a painting contractor who, as we meet him tonight, is having his first post-marital sleepover.

When his ex, Allison (Marshall), with whom he has two slightly neurotic kids, doesn't appear to care that he's moving on, he learns that she's moved on as well, and mighty quickly at that, with a character played by Ed Begley Jr. (replacing Larry Miller, who was the only even potentially funny thing about the original pilot).

Paired as it is with the return of "The New Adventures of Old Christine" (8 tonight, Channel 3), "Gary" would seem to be offering equal time to guys on the tricky subject of post-divorce relationships.

But the writing's not there, and neither is anyone who can play at the level of "Christine's" Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

Mohr, a comic who's never really celebrated his warm and fuzzy side, seems miscast here as a well-meaning victim of circumstance. I kept waiting for him to be, well, more Mohr and less milquetoast, but "Gary Unmarried" would seem to be Gary unmanned.

Not to worry, though. Allison's there, fussing about juice fasts and gingko tablets, making the case for Gary's unmarried state even as Marshall, like a controlled burn in a government-managed forest, works whatever black arts she supposedly practices to put "Gary Unmarried" out of its misery. *

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