Adam Goldberg has built an admirable career out of neurotic, stereotypically Jewish shtick. Usually a supporting player, he's the guy with the frizzies whose insecurities are a few shades darker than those of the early Woody Allen. One look at Goldberg's punim, and you know his mother is either too happy with him or never happy enough.
''Head Cases," Fox's new odd-couple dramedy, will not go down in history as the best showcase for Goldberg's winning comic pathos. Indeed, the series, which premieres tonight at 9 on Channel 25, features one of his least appealing turns, which is doubly disappointing since it's one of his rare leading roles. Opposite Chris O'Donnell, he plays a twitchy lawyer named Russell Shultz whose eruptive anger causes him to moon judges and hit opposing counsel. His legs start jittering, and soon he's exploding into an embarrassing scene. And soon we're cringing with annoyance.
It's a too-big performance, especially for a weekly series. O'Donnell is far easier to watch as his costar, since he isn't gunning hard for caricature. Mostly known for his movie work, O'Donnell comes to TV as a more controlled lawyer named Jason Payne who's forced to befriend Shultz by their mutual therapist. Payne has just spent two months in a mental institution, recovering from a breakdown and his broken marriage; now, he has to deal with Shultz's mad eruptions. Shultz haunts Payne like Bill Murray in ''What About Bob?," but -- fear not! -- the pair will find an Oscar-Felix balance, both as buddies and as legal partners.
The marriage of opposites is a simplistic and overused premise for a TV series, and ''Head Cases" doesn't travel very far beyond it. There are weekly legal cases, but they serve primarily as vehicles for the stars to drive each other lovably crazy. And the cases have that absurdist, ''Ally McBeal" edge that isn't as funny as the writers think it is -- tonight, for instance, when a woman sues because she was fired for being a nymphomaniac.
The mental-illness jokes, too, aren't original enough, as they goof on the eccentrics in Payne's therapy group. Yeah, ''The Bob Newhart Show" went there and did that many decades ago. By the way, expect to see press releases professing outrage from mental-health organizations about ''Head Cases." While the series is a portrait of two men successfully recovering from serious psychological disorders, it also doesn't hold back on the nutcake humor.
O'Donnell has a quiet sweetness that makes the uptight Payne easy to root for. He's just right as a suppressed man trying to loosen up. If the writers can minimize Shultz into occasional comic relief and expand Payne into something more dimensional, O'Donnell might possibly save the show. Right now, he's too much the humbled man righting past wrongs. As an actor, he deserves better opportunities than scenes in which he makes up to the preteen son he's ignored for too long. That's the kind of cliched, TV-commercial sentimentality that can drive viewers crazy.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.