TV REVIEW: 'Underbelly' worth the wait

The fall TV season that seemingly began sometime during Bill Clinton's first term - actually, it was in August, with the debut of Fox's mercifully short-lived "Celebrity Duets" - finally staggers to a close tonight with the premiere of ABC's "Notes from the Underbelly," a surprisingly witty sitcom about pregnancy.

I say surprisingly because "Underbelly" was originally supposed to debut in October before ABC pulled it back, sat on it for six months without explanation, and changed its time slot once since putting it back on the schedule. Those are ordinarily signs that the show is a dog of the staggering proportions of, well, "Celebrity Duets."

In this case, the signs point instead to a loss of confidence on the part of ABC executives in their ability to judge what makes a good comedy. They made the right call the first time, when they bought and scheduled Underbelly. It's different, it's droll, it's quirky, it's funny.

Underbelly -- which debuts tonight with back-to-back episodes, then moves to Wednesdays starting next week -- is based on the 2005 comic novel of the same name by Risa Green. It revolves around a couple of thirtysomethings, Lauren (played by Jennifer Westfeldt, the charming not-really-lesbian of "Kissing Jessica Stein") and Andrew (stage actor Peter Cambor).

They planned this pregnancy, but now they're suffering buyer's remorse. She fears big underwear, unperked boobs and spousal boredom; he fears, well, almost everything. Andrew is given to waking in the middle of the night to shout, ''You're pregnant, we're poor, we're screwed!'' Everywhere they go, they seem to run into marital burnouts: ''All pale and dead behind the eyes, that's gonna be us,'' mourns Lauren after one such encounter.

Friends who warn Laura of the dangers of the ''mommy cult'' and Andrew that his sex life is over are not helping. Leader of the gloomy Greek chorus is Rachael Harris (best known as Jon Stewart's Waspish correspondent on "The Daily Show") as Cooper, a tequila-swilling divorce lawyer so promiscuous she carries her own condom case. Melanie Paxson ("Behind the Camera: The Unauthorized Story of Three's Company") as Lauren's stay-at-home-mom pal Julie and Michael Weaver ("Providence") as Andrew's perpetually adolescent buddy Danny also contribute some doomsday advice.

The cut-ins, flashbacks and other narrative tricks that propel Underbelly's story give it a fresh feel. Which brings us to the show's only possible drawback: Can it sustain an entire season built around a single constellation of jokes? And what happens after that? But the show is more than entertaining enough to make it worth finding out.