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Tired jokes make 'Living With Fran' no picnic

With her duck-quack voice and her ''faaa-bulous" mugging, Fran Drescher is awfully close to a human cartoon. She's so naturally exaggerated, she'd probably leave a professional caricaturist scratching his head. For six years on ''The Nanny," she remade ''The Sound of Music" into the sound of helium, as she employed her nasal Jewish shtick to uplift the stiff Sheffield family of Manhattan. And viewers either hated her and her vivid Queens-liness, or they loved her and continue to love her in ''Nanny" reruns on Lifetime. With a broad this broad, there isn't a lot of room in between.

''Living with Fran," her new sitcom, is a challenge even for those of us who enjoy Drescher and her nutty machine-gun laugh. The WB show, which premieres tomorrow night at 8:30 on Channel 56, is a high-concept comedy that simply replays one joke over and over again. And what's worse, it's an age joke. Apparently, Drescher and her writers think that pairing her character, divorced mom Fran Reeves, with a young hunk is the height of comic potential. But, while Drescher delivers her lines with all the brio you'd expect, clearly happy to be back on the small screen, the material remains stubbornly monotonous.

Of course, attaching a woman of a certain age to a boy toy or what Fran's son, Josh (Ben Feldman), calls a ''goy toy" could be seen as a juicy twist. The show puts its finger on a cultural hypocrisy, as many people continue to judge December women more harshly than December men. While People magazine readers are still scratching their heads over Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher, for instance, they don't blink much when it comes to the Bruce Willises of the world and their pretty young things. A few weeks ago, ''Saturday Night Live" took a stab at the issue when Moore greeted Kutcher onstage wearing elderly, prune-skinned makeup.

But ''Living with Fran" doesn't bother to exploit the challenge in its premise, something Kirstie Alley's socially provocative ''Fat Actress" does like crazy. As with most of the WB's comedies, there's very little satire or edge in the air. The show ends up being little more than a claustrophobic half-hour of generic age jokes with a laugh track. Yes, that's better than a claustrophobic half-hour of generic baldness jokes but only slightly.

Fran's live-in boyfriend, Riley (Ryan McPartlin), is a sensitive 26-year-old. He's impossible to dislike, as he dotes on Fran's every whinny and cackle. But Josh, who just dropped out of medical school, finds a way to hate him. And so he, too, joins the show's chorus of age jokes. It gets old, fast.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at

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