The first 10 seconds of tonight's premiere of "Nash Bridges" tell you almost everything you need to know about the CBS series -- without a word of dialogue.
Frame one: the San Francisco skyline at night. Frame two: a silver-plated handgun. Frame three: a long, full-screen closeup of Don Johnson's face bathed in neon.
You have to admit Johnson does look fine in neon, and this is one intelligently crafted cop show. It toys with Johnson's messy-life, naughty, Southern-boy tabloid persona and appropriates the 1980s television iconography of his Sonny Crockett character from "Miami Vice." The result is a smart and swinging police drama that is the most promising pilot from CBS in two television seasons.
For those who haven't already gleaned the biographical details from the tedious advertisements CBS has aired for the series, Johnson's Nash Bridges is a police inspector with the elite Special Investigations Bureau of the City of San Francisco Police Department. He's twice divorced and has a teen-age daughter from his first marriage living with him. He drives a 1970 Barracuda, is an amateur magician and is almost always in trouble with his supervisors.
Outside of the magic, which is used quite cleverly in tonight's pilot, there's not much in that description to suggest originality, is there? Give him a Ferrari, take away his socks, and you've got Crockett gone West Coast -- without Elvis, the alligator.
And it's true, Bridges is a highly derivative character in many ways. Yet, he also comes off as believable and even, to some extent, original.
The latter is accomplished in part through details given his character by the screenwriters: a caring friendship with an ex-partner (played winningly by Cheech Marin), his musical taste that runs toward the Allman Brothers, a quirky sense of humor instead of Crockett's gloomy angst and some very complicated relationships with the women in his life. The rest is Johnson, the actor, creating the artifice that he is Bridges through the same kind of easygoing amiability that James Garner brought to his work as Jim Rockford.
There is more to "Nash Bridges" than just Johnson and his character, though. As the opening frames suggest, there is an ambience created through photography, music and the imagery of San Francisco that looks as if it could rival the texture of "Miami Vice." There are also action sequences of gunfights and car chases that are near feature-film caliber.
Furthermore, there are hot supporting performances by Annette O'Toole and Serena Scott Thomas as Bridges' ex-wives. The bicker-bicker, kiss-kiss, let's-go-to-bed/no-let's-not stuff with Thomas has some genuine sizzle to it, thanks in no small part to the obvious social class differences between the two characters.
For all that, success is in no way guaranteed for "Nash Bridges." CBS is putting it up against NBC's "Homicide" and ABC's "20/20" at 10 p.m. Fridays.
Andre Braugher's Frank Pembleton or Johnson's Nash Bridges? Othello or Elvis? Now that's a choice worth watching to see which way the audience goes.
Pub Date: 3/29/96