The big turnoff

All the fall TV season can offer is Andre Braugher's self-parody, a heartwarming lawyer in a bowling alley and Oliver Platt's "Murder, He Typed."

By Joyce Millman

Published October 23, 2000 7:04PM (EDT)

The fall season is finally here and I think I speak for many viewers when I say, "Is that all there is?"

This has to be the most underwhelming new crop of network shows in ages, particularly the dramas. We're talking about good ideas badly executed ("freakylinks"), bad ideas badly executed ("The District") and shows so inconsequential they barely register on the screen ("The Fugitive," "C.S.I.").

There's little about the new season so far that's worth breaking old habits for -- or making new ones. Here are some of the not entirely terrible exceptions:

"Ed" (NBC) A winsome, hourlong comedy from "Late Show With David Letterman" producer Rob Burnett (with Letterman taking an executive producer credit), "Ed" has gotten the best reviews of the new season. I have a couple of suspicions about that. One, we critics love Letterman, and we love the idea of the Ol' Cranky Bastard throwing a monkey wrench into prime time. Two, we critics are looking for a quirky-sweet comedy-drama to replace the late, lamented "Freaks and Geeks," and "Ed" comes closest to anything out there.

The truth is, "Ed" has its charms, but it hasn't yet jelled (and may never jell, given NBC's propensity for prematurely killing off charming, quirky comedy-dramas that don't fit the must-see mold).

Chief among those charms is find-of-the-year Tom Cavanagh as Ed Stevens, a New York lawyer who catches his wife sleeping with the mailman and gets fired by his firm, both on the same day. He decides to move back to his quaint hometown of Stuckeyville. Packing up his belongings, Ed flips through his high school yearbook and lands on a picture of Carol Vessey (Julie Bowen), the cheerleader whom he adored from afar way back when.

Ed truly believes he can start his life over again and, back home, he sets out to win Carol's heart, even though she doesn't remember him; she's also in a long-term relationship with a pompous colleague at the high school where she teaches English. But the bighearted Carol is intrigued enough by Ed to not call the cops. This is a neat, Lettermanian premise to hang a show on -- Ed is both a sunny-side-up optimist and an obsessed stalker. It's like the male version of "Felicity."

There are moments when "Ed" makes good on its promise. When he first gets home, he takes Carol bowling, she kisses him and, in a burst of euphoria, Ed buys the bowling alley. When he starts a one-man law office in the back and people keep referring to him as "the bowling-alley lawyer," Ed corrects them the same way every time: "I own a bowling alley. I'm a lawyer. Two separate things." This doesn't seem funny when you read it, but believe me, there is something chuckleworthy about the apologetic, earnest way Cavanagh delivers that line.

Ed is not a laugh riot like Letterman's other producing effort, "Everybody Loves Raymond." Rather, it's a sweet shaggy-underdog story, and its humor arises from something almost intangible -- an inflection, a bit of odd wording -- that's more reminiscent of Letterman's earlier producing efforts, the sadly short-lived CBS comedies "The Bonnie Hunt Show" and "The Building" (also starring Hunt).

The problem is, the show's "Northern Exposure" quirkiness has already started to cloy. Ed's co-workers at the bowling alley -- Kenny the hulking idiot (Mike Starr), Shirley the psychotic wallflower (Rachel Cronin) and Phil (Michael Ian Black), who can only be described as the poor man's Jack Black -- were kind of kooky in the Oct. 8 pilot. But by the second week, they had worn out their welcome. There's an overly familiar feel to the show's small-town eccentrics, from beloved elderly magician Stuckeyville Stan to Ed himself. (He shows up to woo Carol in front of her high school students wearing a suit of armor.) You've seen them all before, back in "Twin Peaks" and Cicely and Rome (the one on "Picket Fences").

But then there's Cavanagh, who makes up for a lot. An appealing, toothy cross between Jimmy Stewart and Hugh Grant, Cavanagh makes Ed's self-deprecating, plucky pursuit of happiness both nutty and heartbreaking. I like the sneaky curveball "Ed" throws into the "Providence"-spawned "you can go home again" trend. Sure, you can go home again -- but be prepared to regress into the person you were in your youth. Ed believes that his grown-up sincerity and wit will win him his high school dream girl.

But the cruel joke of it is that, in Carol's presence, Ed will always be reduced to a 17-year-old high school dork. There was a moving scene in the second episode in which Ed timed his coffee break to "accidentally" run into Carol on hers, and his eyes lit up. But then her BMOC beau (Gregory Harrison) came along and gave her a showy, proprietary kiss, and Ed looked like he'd been kicked in the gut.

Still, at times like those, "Ed" feels like an emotional cousin to "Freaks and Geeks" in the way it suggests that the pain and uncertainty of adolescence stay with you all your life. "Ed" deserves a chance to work out the bugs. Will NBC oblige?

Gideon's Crossing (ABC) Why is it whenever an African-American actor gets his own TV series, he's always called Gideon or Gabriel or something? First we had Lou Gossett Jr. as an amateur sleuth in the short-lived "Gideon Oliver"; then came James Earl Jones as an ex-cop framed for murder who later turns private eye in the short-lived "Gabriel's Fire"; and now, here's Andre Braugher as Dr. Ben Gideon, chief of experimental medicine at a prestigious Boston teaching hospital. The track record is not good.

Braugher, of course, played one of the great characters in cop-show history, the judgmental Detective Frank Pembleton on "Homicide: Life on the Street." Pembleton, who was never, ever wrong (in his mind), was pissed off at God throughout his entire "Homicide" stint. Why did bad things happen to innocent people? Why do the wicked prosper and the righteous fail? Whenever Pembleton went off on one of these tangents, it may have looked like he was having a dialogue with his partner, but he was actually deep into a dialogue with God -- the haughty, omniscient Pembleton was just talking to someone his own size.

On "Gideon's Crossing," Braugher doesn't just get to talk to God, he gets to play God. His character is based on Dr. Jerome Groopman (who is white), a pioneer in cancer and AIDS treatment and chief of experimental medicine at Boston's Beth Israel Deaconness Hospital. Some of the story lines are taken from Groopman's book "The Measure of Our Days," about the relationship between doctors and terminally ill patients, and the scientific advances in treatment that can prolong lives.

This is grim subject matter for a TV series, but apparently not grim enough for creator/writer Paul Attanasio (who also created "Homicide"). So he makes Gideon a grieving, self-flagellant widower with kids. Irony of ironies, Gideon couldn't save his wife, who died of ovarian cancer. He is living proof that doctors are not infallible, but he must stand up in front of his students every day and teach them how to deal with patients who believe they are.

"Gideon's Crossing" is tailored for Braugher, the classical actor with the commanding presence that's half Sidney Poitier elegant, half James Earl Jones rough-and-tumble. The scenes in which he lectures his students are staged like Shakespearean soliloquies -- shafts of sunlight stream onto the old wooden teaching round while Braugher muses like Hamlet before them. His large eyes are mournful; the descriptions trip from his tongue in deliberate, lyrical Pembleton-speak. Patients, like lovers, stand naked and trusting before us, he tells the class. They expect a doctor to be "a human being, without unkind feelings, who makes no mistakes."

I hate to say this, because I respect and adore Braugher, but Attanasio has given him a golden opportunity to lapse into self-parody. "Gideon's Crossing" is solemn and admirable and dignified -- and quite dull. It would benefit immeasurably from Patch Adams clomping into the room in clown shoes with a bedpan on his head.

But, wait! Patch Adams is on duty, in spirit anyway, because, like the esteemed Dr. Adams, Gideon is not one of those doctors who get up on their high horse in front of patients. He believes in relating to patients as human beings, not diagnoses.

So, in Wednesday's episode, he struggled to persuade a frightened young woman with a recurrence of breast cancer to stop fooling around with healers and Chinese herbal medicine and let him aggressively treat her disease. Rebuffed several times, Gideon finally takes a yoga class with her to show her what an open-minded good sport he is. Cut to Gideon in a sweat suit struggling comically to hold complicated poses, gasping for breath. We smile at God's klutziness.

Attanasio could have stopped there in his efforts to lighten Braugher's gravitas, but no. Instead, he loads up the show with an assortment of stock medical-drama rookie docs: the beautiful, ambitious Latina, the gruff African-American chief resident (Gideon's handpicked Mini-Me?), the unhappily married stud, the surly Indian, the hopeless screwup.

These younger characters are there for obvious demographic reasons, but since Gideon rarely works alongside them, shares scenes with them or interacts one on one with them in any meaningful way, it's like watching two wildly different series that never coalesce. And every time the action cuts to these young pups and their "ER" antics, it's like a vote of no confidence in Braugher. He deserves better.

Deadline (NBC) The new drama from "Law & Order" creator Dick Wolf has taken a lot of heat from critics for its journalistic inaccuracies. Get over it. This is not a show about journalism. The newspaper setting is just a convenient way to get the show's flamboyant protagonist, (fictional) New York tabloid columnist Wallace Benton (Oliver Platt), mixed up in detective stories without actually making him a detective.

"Deadline" is a throwback to those novelty private-eye shows of the late '60 and '70s -- you know, Barnaby Jones was the old detective, Cannon was the fat detective, Columbo was the sloppy detective, Ironside was the detective in a wheelchair. Benton is the reporter detective. A hard-drinking, ink-stained wretch in foppish three-piece suits who uses his column to champion the little guy (when he isn't writing sensationalized accounts of murder and corruption), Benton is supposed to call to mind such New York newspaper legends as Jimmy Breslin and Murray Kempton. But sleuthing around, trying to solve decades-old murder mysteries, he's more like Jessica Fletcher with a hangover.

Platt is a colorful scenery chewer, though. And Hope Davis rises above her nothing role as Benton's ex-wife and co-worker (they still occasionally fall into bed together) with a neat sophisticated bitch turn straight out of a "Thin Man" movie. The rest of the show is a mess. Lili Taylor -- Lili Taylor! -- is wasted in a role so underwritten I don't even know what her job at the newspaper is. There's a subplot about Benton teaching an investigative journalism class, but his students (added in hopes of bringing down the average age of the cast) are a blur. Bebe Neuwirth struts through the newsroom every now and then in outfits that are more dominatrix than editrix.

Still, if you dial back your expectations a notch (or several) and approach "Deadline" as the future A&E afternoon rerun fodder it is, it can be a perfectly acceptable time killer. You can even read the newspaper while it's on and not lose track of the plot.

Joyce Millman

Joyce Millman is a writer living in the Bay Area.

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