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'Courting Alex' lowers bar

Every day, Hope and Failure do fierce battle on TV. Hope gently urges us to watch sitcoms, to make sweet light of life. But Failure laughs heartily in Hope's face and yells at us, ''You fools! Don't listen to that naive stooge. I will crush any comic talent that dares to show its face within the borders of prime time. So just give up and surf directly to 'Skating and Dancing With Botox,' do not pass Go."

But Hope, she is undaunted. She gives us that look -- you know the one, with the eternal spring to it -- and she tempts us with a new CBS comedy called ''Courting Alex," which premieres tonight at 9:30 on Channel 4. She says, ''Forget about the bad pun in the title, my friends. Forget about the formulaic concept of a driven career woman afraid of love. This will rock." Hope reminds us that Jenna Elfman had her free-spirited charms in ''Dharma & Greg," and that this series was built specifically as Elfman's vehicle. She asserts that few actors can do cranky-funny as naturally as Dabney Coleman, who costars as Elfman's dad and boss. And she makes other promises, oh, yes, she makes promises.

But, alas, we should have listened to Failure all along. ''Courting Alex," in which Elfman's uptight New York lawyer is courted by a bar owner named Scott (Josh Randall), is a charmless sitcom with absolutely nothing original in it. Oddly, it's even derivative of Elfman's own ''Dharma & Greg," but -- as some network exec must have exclaimed at a meeting -- this time Elfman is the Greg. She's the straight one who's married to her cellphone, and she's the one dealing with a more spontaneous romantic counterpart.

OK, so Alex is trying to get Scott to sell his family tavern, so one of her clients can develop the property, but she's attracted to him, and he's attracted to her, and business and pleasure make uncomfortable bedfellows, so they have all kinds of awkward interactions, and she begins what will inevitably be a constant conflict in her life between her legal ambition and her love affair, a conflict from which all kinds of madcap adventures and punchlines will ensue, particularly since her neighbor (Hugh Bonneville) is a nutty British artist who keeps popping into her apartment to push her into taking risks.

Hey! Wake up!

''Courting Alex" doesn't deserve contempt, if only because it's so harmless and pointless. It's just a feebly made opportunity for Elfman to show she can play something other than a flower child. It's not fueled by hatred or meanness so much as by pure blandness. Ultimately, we can only hope it fails, so that Elfman can find herself a more worthwhile way to court viewers.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at

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