Three new dramas show mixed promise

TV premiere

September 26, 1991|By Michael Hill

THE STREETS are wet, the lights are shiny, the mood is moody,the character is a cop-out-of-water. The show is NBC's new "Reasonable Doubts," which gets a send-off tonight at 10 o'clock on Channel 2 (WMAR), and it comes as no surprise that its creator, Robert Butler, was also behind "Midnight Caller."

Indeed, the 1988 pilot for that NBC show also started out with a tense, well-choreographed chase scene on shiny city streets. In that one, the cop killed his partner but was taken under the wing of an earnest young woman who ran a radio station and turned him into a call-in show host.

In this one, the cop gets his man -- thus establishing himself as a gritty street-type law enforcer -- but gets taken under the wing of an earnest young woman nonetheless. That would be an assistant district attorney who needs an investigator.

This cop is Dicky Cobb. The young woman is Tess Kaufman. She is deaf. It is inadvertently -- and rather cleverly -- revealed during a court proceeding that Cobb is fluent in sign language. Thus is this match made.

Mark Harmon and Marlee Matlin are playing the lead roles, so "Reasonable Doubts" promises to be pleasant on the eyes even if it loses the classy production values of its pilot. Matlin, an Oscar winner for "Children of a Lesser God," has a power that jTC zooms out even through the small screen. Harmon isn't convincing as the gritty street cop, but he does well when time comes for him to be the stand-up nice guy.

By the way, Matlin does use her voice in a number of scenes, but for the most part Harmon has to shoulder both sides of the dialogue. It comes off well enough in the pilot.

The problem with the pilot is that those impressive production values -- which include a slo-mo killing, a music video love scene which contrasts the two characters' luck in the sack, and a female-in-shower-in-jeopardy homage to "Psycho" -- overshadow a rather hefty plot.

The uptake of this story would send an atomic bomb blast through a big city's police department and municipal government, yet it passes by as a bit of the background, totally upstaged by the moody photography.

Of course, such a focus on production worked in the original of this genre, "Miami Vice," which scored in the same time slot -- Friday at 10 p.m. -- that "Reasonable Doubts" will assume. But that was because no one had seen anything like it before. By now, we've seen it too many times.

And, it's worth noting that fairly soon "Midnight Caller" got away from that wet-streets look and became a competent, interesting, but hardly ground-breaking, action drama.

Look for "Reasonable Doubts" to take much the same turn but with a focus on the star-quality couple at its center. Matlin and Harmon give people a reason to tune in. It's up to Butler and crew just not to give them a reason to tune out.

*

What's good about "Pros & Cons" are all the things that were good about "Gabriel's Fire." What's bad about "Pros and Cons" are all the things that they did to "Gabriel's Fire" to turn it into this new half hour show.

"Gabriel's Fire" came on ABC a year ago with James Earl Jones as a wrongly convicted ex-cop who emerges from 20 years of prison and becomes an investigator for a tony woman attorney in Chicago.

The show was well-received but low-rated (no surprise, it ran on Thursday nights). ABC decided to try to save it and started tinkering. The attorney is gone. So is Chicago. Welcome to Los Angeles and Richard Crenna.

Tonight's first episode of "Pros and Cons," which will be on Channel 13 (WJZ) at 8 o'clock, has Jones' Gabriel Bird character travel to Tinsel Town on a case where he accidentally teams up with Crenna's private eye named Mitch O'Hannon.

The good parts are a couple of inventively filmed extended scenes of a hired killer in action that convey tension and information with hardly a line of dialogue. Just the sort of stuff you might have seen in "Gabriel's Fire."

The bad parts are the lighter moments that are supposed to give "Pros & Cons" a wider appeal. Jones and Crenna sound like a couple of aging vaudevillians hacking through a bad routine in these comedic moments which seem stuck onto the rest of the show like Post-It notes.

The ABC hacks might not have been messing with ratings success when they re-tooled "Gabriel's Fire," but they were messing with a successful show. The results are inevitable. They made it a lot worse.

*

After "The Cosby Show" hit it big on NBC, ABC threw in the towel and went with a low-cost news hour during which Linda Ellerbee and Ray Gandolf would look back at recent history. "Our World" attracted much praise and a small, loyal audience.

CBS and NBC have tried a lot of stuff against NBC's Thursday night juggernaut, but they keep coming back to cheap, reality-based programming, CBS with "Top Cops" and ABC with "American Detective" and, premiering tonight at 9 o'clock on Channel 13 (WJZ), "FBI: The Untold Stories."

Don't be misled by that title. The FBI's untold stories don't mean we finally find out about J. Edgar Hoover's sexual orientation. It means we get true-crime reporting and re-enactments that make the agents out to be your garden-variety heroes.

But the bottom line is that the networks would have been better off leaving this stuff to their news divisions. "FBI: The Untold Stories" is pretty good when it's reporting on these rather fascinating crimes and investigations, but when it goes into its dramatic re-enactment phase -- the stuff self-respecting news divisions stay away from -- it looks ridiculous, like pure tabloid TV trash.

ABC used to get a small audience on Thursday with a classy show like "Our World." Now it will get a small audience with a sleazy show like "FBI: The Untold Stories." Does it just run against the basic nature of the networks to take the high road even when it doesn't cost them anything?

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