Garner's persona alone can't keep series going

September 15, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

"Man of the People" is Maverick at middle age.

The new James Garner series, which premieres at 8 tonight on WMAR-TV (Channel 2), is "Jimbo" Rockford at his rock-bottom most conniving. James Doyle, the scamming city councilman at the center of "Man of the People," is, in short, a continuation of Garner's TV persona of the last 35 years.

Garner's characters are charming, ambitious in all the wrong directions and, here, more than a little interested in women. In fact, Doyle is downright lecherous -- a programming nod to the realities of TV in the '90s.

Because of the Garner persona, "Man of the People" ain't half bad, as Doyle would put it.

L But barely half good is more like it in every other respect.

The writing in the three episodes available for preview is limpid. The plots are transparent. The supporting cast is paper-thin -- and supporting casts are what give sitcoms legs; think of "Murphy Brown," "Designing Women" or "Roseanne."

Tonight's episode has Doyle showing up for the funeral of his ex-wife, a beloved city councilwoman. He arrives in the middle of the graveside service in a long, low, red Cadillac convertible with the top down and Ray Charles' "What'd I Say?" blasting from the radio. It's a great opening.

The powers that be decide on the spot that Doyle is just the guy to serve out the councilwoman's term. They see him as a small-time hustler who can be controlled short term and who, in the long term, will shoot himself in the foot. Then they can put one of their own crooked pack in the council seat without opposition from his ex-wife's followers.

Doyle takes the job and appears to fall in with the corrupt politicians. But it's only appearances. Doyle is, after all, the rascal with a heart of gold. Each week, he answers the call

of his better angels, and the kids' playground is saved or a man's home is spared from the wrecking ball.

"Man of the People" is a one-trick pony. Granted Garner is a terrific pony, but to keep viewers interested, the producers need to find a more interesting course for him to trot.

'Pacific Station'

Remember the workplace sitcoms of the late 1970s -- "Barney Miller," "Taxi" and "WKRP in Cincinnati"?

The workplace was screwy, but it was where everything that mattered happened in the characters' lives. Co-workers were the real family.

That's the current "Pacific Station" plugs into. The show, which premieres at 8:30 tonight on WMAR-TV (Channel 2), is old-fashioned and highly derivative of "Barney Miller," but it is also loaded with talent and funny in a way that won't make you feel embarrassed for laughing.

Robert Guillaume stars as Detective Bob Ballard, but Richard Libertini and Ron Leibman get the big laughs as off-beat officers in tonight's episode about Ballard being passed over for promotion.

'P.S.I. Luv U'

For a long time I thought Jaclyn Smith was the worst big-name actress on television. Then I saw the pilot for "P.S.I. Luv U" with Connie Sellecca trying to do what CBS calls "comedy-drama" for two hours.

You too will have the chance to see Connie Sellecca do "comedy-drama" at 9 tonight on WBAL-TV (Channel 11). Don't say you weren't warned.

Sellecca plays a glamorous and sexy jewel thief forced to live in Palm Springs in a witness protection plan overseen by a cop (Greg Evigan).

Let me share the sad and frightening thought that plagued me as I watched these two trying to be witty, sexy and gay: Is this our generation's idea of Grace Kelly and Cary Grant?

(P.S.: "P.S.I. Luv U" moves into its regular 10 p.m. Saturday slot next week.)

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