Falls short in originality


October 24, 1990|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Meet Hank Zaret -- another post-'80s, post-Reagan, post-Yuppie, post-modern television hero trying to burn off some sins of excess from the old days when all that counted was personal gain and professional advancement.

We've seen his kind in recent months. Jack Shannon of "Shannon's Deal," Rosie O'Neill of "The Trials of Rosie O'Neill," Simon MacHeath of "Against the Law" -- a whole new class of television heroes for the down-sized, I-think-the-party's-over 1990s.

Zaret is not a lawyer like the others. He's a television news director at WNDY-TV, a fictional television station. It's a station with serious ratings and financial troubles. The money woes are so bad, the station is nicknamed WIOU -- which also happens to be the title of this new CBS drama from Grant Tinker's GTG Productions that debuts at 10 tonight on WBAL-TV (Channel 11).

"WIOU" is an ensemble drama. That means Zaret, played by John Shea, is only one of the leading figures.

The others include: Kelby Robinson (Helen Shaver), an experienced reporter who finally has a shot at the anchor desk; Neal Frazier (Harris Yulin), the station's "star" anchorman who has his hands all over Robinson and his ego all over the newsroom; and Liz McVay (Mariette Hartley), an experienced producer who has been passed over repeatedly for the news director's job. (Yes, that Mariette Hartley -- the one who co-hosted a real-life CBS program, "The Morning Show," a couple of years ago. Though, calling "The Morning Show," with its

stand-up comics at 7 a.m., "real-life" is stretching the term.)

But Zaret is first among equals. His "back story," as they say in the world of television, is that he made it to the big time in New York, but got bounced back to WNDY because he got carried away with the competition and was involved in paying cash for a news story. As tonight's episode unfolds, he becomes our fixed point of reference on the moral compass needed to navigate the chaos that is WNDY.

The worst thing about "WIOU" is how heavily it borrows from other ensemble dramas. Like the pilot of "L.A. Law," there's a death at the top tonight and lots of dark humor as some of the characters fight for the dead man's rung on the ladder literally as they are burying his remains. "WIOU" is in many ways simply "St. Elsewhere" moved from a rundown hospital to a rundown television station -- with lots of cliches about the TV news business. But at its best moments, "WIOU" captures some of the anxiety and uncertainty of living in an America of less these days. It not only captures that but occasionally makes you smile at it. Through Zaret, "WIOU" suggests that less might not be more, but it can make some of us better.

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