The Life of Brian 

Does a witty, updated thirtysomething stand a chance?

What about What About Brian? Yours truly was screening the show last summer as part of the onslaught of new fall series, chuckling and chortling and having a pretty good time -- until he came to a grim realization: What About Brian wasn't even on the fall schedule.

At the second-to-the-last minute, ABC had dropped the show from the lineup and put it on the shelf, waiting for just the right moment to bring it forth. Unfortunately, ABC wasn't aware of a new rule of network television: Don't introduce any new programs while American Idol is on the air. Brian doesn't even air opposite Idol, but that almost doesn't matter because Idol soaks up the oxygen for miles around and makes it hard for viewers to get excited about anything else. Since it's a smart, sprightly, unassuming little show, What About Brian may escape the Idol curse.

As for Brian, its eponymous hero, played with tender sheepishness by Barry Watson, is a noncommittal guy in his 30s, not really a slacker (with a creepy friend, he runs a video game company) but someone living a life that hasn't quite jelled.

Brian's friends, the flippant way they exchange half-witticisms, and a general sense that their problems are half-baked or cooked-up -- all these factors suggest we are watching an updated version of thirtysomething. But at least the updating is handled intelligently by series creator Dana Stevens and executive producer J.J. Abrams, whose credits include ABC's powerhouse Lost.

Poor Brian is kind of lost too, as the premiere quickly makes clear. It aired in a special time slot on Sunday, April 16th, at 9 p.m. and then moved to its regular home the following night at 9. Brian's friends are his extended family, a group of like-minded professional people who feel comfortable with one another and don't seem terribly involved in the traumatic calamities of the world.

At times, they become too superficial for words -- even too superficial for gestures -- and might as well be the stars of those beer and SUV commercials that plague sports events on TV. You know -- the comely comic crowds who hang around the beach or the mountains and just laugh and laugh and laugh at how funny life is.

The friends on Brian are never quite that irritating, but the writers will have to take care and watch their steps.

Brian faces a dilemma on the premiere. His friends are all paired off in couples, and though he has a great older sister (Rosanna Arquette, making a welcome return), he resents that his pals wrangle over such matters as who'll give Brian a ride to the movies. So he drives himself. Sad to say, there's a bit of fender-bending on the way, and Brian ends up dating the very driver (Amy Jo Johnson) he rear-ended, nicknamed "Car Girl" by his friends.

Car Girl is a trifle unstable, referring to Brian as "Ted Bundy" and throwing him out of his own apartment. Meanwhile Brian realizes a painful truth: He is thoroughly in love with his friend Adam's girl Marjorie (the lovable indeed Sarah Lancaster). As luck would have it, Adam says it's time he and Marjorie broke up and proposes a pact: He will call it quits with Marjorie on the same day Brian ditches Car Girl.

But then luck has it another way. Adam changes his mind and instead of breaking up with Marjorie -- well, you'll see. He leaves Brian dangling from the horns of a moral dilemma. Through it all, most of the actors make their characters zesty and likable, if on occasion too glib for their -- and our -- own good.

What About Brian doesn't seem likely to take the country by storm and may not last past its initial six episodes. But after all the racket made by American Idol, the easygoing charm of Brian is brisk, cool, and refreshing -- like drinking a beer on a mountaintop with your SUV parked nearby.

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