TELEVISION Caroline in the City (C4)

Another American sitcom to show us who's comedy boss? Well, no, actually, says Jasper Rees
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They say American sitcom knocks seven shades of wit out of its British counterpart. Boy, do they say that a lot. Because comedy is a mercurial business, and not something you can corner off in a paragraph, what they rarely go on to say is why. Sure, we all know that American scripts are densely collaborative, that British comedy mutates its characters into gargoyles, that over there there's a featherlight touch we galumphingly fail to replicate. But it somehow goes unnoticed that what we would perceive as a weakness, American sitcom has made a source of strength.

Take Caroline in the City, the latest arrival breathlessly flagged by Channel 4 as the best new thing from America since the last best new thing. Once more, in the footprints of Cybill and Ellen, we have a single professional woman prone to romantic panic and low-esteem. As in Cybill, there's the brassy, pavement-clever girlfriends who spits barbs from the touchline like "I hate to say I told you so. Well, actually, I like saying that." As in Ellen, the heroine flits between a chirpy independence of spirit and fretful self-doubt.

These shows might as well be cloned from one another, but somehow they manage to cordon off an area in which they can be themselves. This is where the quality gap really opens up. Over here, there's this craving for sitcom to be about something - about an embittered pensioner, about a pair of emotionally retarded males, about a suburban snob. American comedy seems content just to be - to be in a bar, in a blue-collar household or, in this case, a cartoonist's studio. The anchor of narrative has been hauled in, leaving the scripts free to drift unfettered around the map of human relationships.

Actually, Caroline in the City isn't quite the funniest import around. Despite or perhaps because of her cute victim's dimples, Caroline has boyfriend trouble. She's just split from the loathsome Del, but as she draws cartoons for his greetings card company, she can't escape seeing him. In part one, they both take new dates to their favourite restaurant. Del's, predictably, provokes a hoary array of cradle-snatch gags. Caroline's, more interestingly, is her new colourist Richard, who steps into the breach to help her prove to Del that she's moved on.

With that droaning android speech earlifted from Frasier's brother Niles and ex-wife Lilith, Richard is the weak link in the chain of credibility. He and Caroline are plainly going to spend the whole series flirting, but the script will have its work cut out to make the union look like anything other than a marriage of opposites arranged for comic purposes. A steal, in other words, from a British sitcom.