'Picket Fences' keeps plot-lines in a row, but separate

September 18, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

"Picket Fences" wants to be "Northern Exposure" -- only not quite so northern or so exposed.

The new CBS "drama with comedy," as the network calls it, imitates "Northern Exposure" in trying to be quirky as heck, but it takes no real chances. It wants to be a lighter and brighter "Twin Peaks" but is unwilling to make the climb and risk the fall.

The series centers on a nuclear family, the Brocks -- Tom Skerritt plays the dad, a small-town sheriff, and Kathy Baker plays the mom, a medical doctor. They live in Rome, Wisc., with their three kids. The networks apparently think towns and people get stranger the farther north you go.

Weird things do happen in Rome, and embarrassing things happen to the Brocks.

In tonight's two-hour pilot, at 9 p.m. on WBAL (Channel 11), a teacher playing the Tin Man in the school production of "The Wizard of Oz" drops dead just off-stage. He's been poisoned with an injection of nicotine. We find out he has nude photos of a 16-year-old student in his desk.

The nuclear family part has the Brocks' youngest child wetting his pants at school and the oldest, a daughter, trying to be a roadhouse singer.

Also, the town deputy falls for a female singer passing through. And did I mention the storyline involving prostitution?

"Picket Fences" has about four different stories going, and none of them seems to play off the other or reverberate.

The show is like a Chinese menu -- one plot from column "A," one from column "B" and so on. Nothing relates or hangs together. It's like listening to a song with a bassist playing one rhythm and the drummer another -- and both of them doing it for two hours.

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