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TV's New Odd Couples

Love is supposed to be blind. But if network TV is any indication, it's only women who have love-impaired vision.

In an increasing number of sitcoms, the men who head the households — no matter how overweight, underpaid or boisterous — always come home to a lithe and lovely wife.

In ABC's According to Jim, 48-year-old Jim Belushi plays a contractor married to Courtney Thorne-Smith, 34, the goddess of Melrose Place fame. On CBS, Kevin James, the pudgy delivery truck driver in The King of Queens, is paired with the slim, sexy Leah Remini. And on The Drew Carey Show, the bespectacled department store manager winds up a polygamist married to both a voluptuous blonde and a perky, pretty brunette.

"In comedy, you've got a lot of men whose careers are not based on how they look," said Bob Thompson, founder of the Center of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "Those shows are ways of featuring those comics. With the wives, you have a broader range of choices and it's business as usual in terms of casting beautiful women."

Seinfeld most recently opened the door for a male comedian to become a sitcom superstar, and today's crop of shows reflects that influence, Thompson said. The bevy of beauties that crossed paths with Jerry, George and Kramer — including actress Marisa Tomei, who in one episode is attracted to short, bald men, like George — walked right out of male fantasy central casting.

"On Seinfeld, it was almost like a beauty contest, with this parade of excessively, ridiculously beautiful women," Thompson said. "Not in a million years, not in this solar system, would George have had the dates he had."

Those casting choices contributed to Seinfeld's farcical comedy. The women, though beautiful, were often portrayed as mentally unstable or odd, explaining their involvement with the Seinfeld crew.

But believing characters played by Belushi, Carey and James would stand a chance with women who look like Thorne-Smith or Remini is something different, isn't it?

The scientific answer is, yes and no. Studies dating back two decades have shown people tend to be attracted to those of their same level of attractiveness.

"Everyone is looking for the most attractive person they can get, but if you're not a 10, you can't always compete for another 10," said Dr. Michael Cunningham, professor of psychology at the University of Louisville.

But Cunningham said money and status can compensate for a man's lack of physical attractiveness, leading to such real-life matches as Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, and any number of unions between curmudgeonly millionaires and sweet young things.

There's also what Cunningham phrased the Billy Joel-Christie Brinkley factor. The supermodel didn't need the musician's money. It was reportedly his humor and personality that won over the uptown girl.

"Many of these couples are explained by him having a great sense of humor," Cunningham said.

If that's the case, then maybe these on-screen odd couples aren't such a stretch. If laughter equals attractiveness, Kevin James is a pin-up poster boy.

So, if the world is ready for chubby hubbies who offer wit instead of tight abs, when can we expect to see some average-looking, but hilarious women partnered with studly men?

The answer is never, according to the experts.

"You will never see this going in the other direction. Beauty and the Beast will never be told in reverse," Thompson said. "If there were, it would be the entire premise of the show."

Even the scientists concur such a show would be a stretch. When it comes to love, Cunningham said, only women are blind. Men look for looks.

"It is an unfortunate fact of life that men pay more attention to physical attraction than women," he said.

This is also true for viewers, Thompson said. The public that likes Belushi for his jokes also wants to look at Thorne-Smith. A look at repeats of Everybody Loves Raymond seems to prove this theory.

In the early episodes, Patricia Heaton was cute but frumpy as suburban mom Debra Barone. According to a Hollywood insider, producers wanted a realistic couple, but viewers didn't respond.

Heaton has since slimmed down, had a hair and make-up overhaul and updated her style, while her gangly, on-air husband played by Ray Romano, has gone through no such transformation.

"It's public demand. People want beautiful women," said one observer. "Now she's beautiful, gorgeous-looking, svelte. It's what the viewers want."