It's a dysfunctional life in 'Birdland'

January 05, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

"Birdland," ABC's new one-hour drama starring Brian Dennehy, is a celebration of the dysfunctional, the semi-functional, the unhappily functioning and the just-plain screwed-up. It's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" sanitized and sweetened for prime-time.

If you love seeing exhibitions of things that don't work, tune in the premiere at 10 tonight on WJZ (Channel 13).

Dennehy plays the chief of a psychiatric unit in an Oakland hospital. He treats the dysfunctional for a living.

Tonight's case involves a boy who can't sleep and who recently put his arm through his bedroom window. The boy holds a secret. And in true TV doctor fashion, Dennehy discovers the secret after visiting the boy's home just once and gazing thoughtfully out the window. The doctor then cures the boy with a chat.

Dennehy's character, Dr. Brian MacKenzie, is a little on the dysfunctional side, too, when it comes to his personal life. He's carrying on a secret affair, taking afternoons off to visit the track, and dodging calls from a bookie to whom he owes money. His son is a street musician and they talk every six months or so on a street corner: "Nice to see ya, pop. Thanks for dropping by."

The hospital is also veering toward the dysfunctional, running out of money, needing to whack the budget for everything.

The pilot is not without talent. The series has strong performers in all the lead roles. When CCH Pounder is listed last in the credits, you know either there's some talent in front of the cameras or Ms. Pounder needs a new agent.

But this is a pilot, remember, which means this is as good as the show is ever likely to get. There is never as much time or care put into subsequent episodes as there is in the pilot, which is used to sell the series.

"Birdland" has all the earmarks of a show poised to slide into the "psychosis of the week" syndrome, with Dennehy as the great, white father, having miraculous insights and saving the day -- every seventh day at 10 p.m. on ABC.

Pass the aspirin.

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