Two out of three's not bad Preview: CBS puts drama, two sitcoms on the air tonight.

September 15, 1997|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

He avenges the death of a poor Catholic girl who was raped and killed while she was saying the rosary.

He sends mob bosses to prison for life when others would let them cut a deal and cop a plea.

He exposes bid-riggers, bribe-takers and crooked defense attorneys bing, bang, boom.

He tells a gorgeous lady cop in a clingy sweater and leather shoulder holster, "Not tonight, I've got to be up early tomorrow." And the early hour is to take his troubled, 11-year-old nephew fishing.

And, somehow, he also finds time to run the U.S. Attorney's office in Manhattan.

Meet Michael Hayes, crime-buster, the character David Caruso has chosen for his return to prime-time television tonight on CBS.

Like "NYPD Blue" -- the series Kelly left in 1994 saying he needed a bigger screen to hold his enormous talent -- it's quality, adult drama. The two episodes airing tonight and Sept. 23 -- which CBS calls a prequel and the pilot -- are second only to Steven Bochco's "Brooklyn South" as the most impressive new drama of the season.

It would be hard not to have quality with author Nicholas Pileggi and Paul Haggis, the creator of last year's widely praised and quickly canceled "EZ Streets," as executive producers.

But they are only two of six executive producers on "Michael Hayes" -- setting a new record for the number of such critters on a series. And one of them is Caruso, which is where my concerns begin.

In an interview this summer, Caruso said he wants Hayes to be "the good guy, the guy who represents us, the American people," against the forces of darkness. Caruso said he also wants Hayes to be a larger-than-life hero, and that is exactly what he is in tonight's prequel.

The prequel, though, was made after the pilot, and I think it makes the series too black-and-white, erasing too much of the gray you find in a character like Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) on "NYPD Blue."

Speaking of Franz, Caruso also said in that interview that he left "NYPD Blue" in part because it was a "one-character show" and he was tired of carrying the load.

The point is that Caruso has this inflated sense of himself, and the more you give him his head to define his character as hero-of-heroes, the more likely your series is going to suffer in terms of believability. The Michael Hayes viewers will see this week and next is still a believable character, but he's on the verge of going into the red on the goodness factor.

The main reason you believe in the world of Michael Hayes is because Pileggi and John Romano, the co-creator of the series, do such a fine job of spoon-feeding backstory into the narrative and creating a surrogate family.

Hayes' history is working-class: beat cop, homicide investigator, night-class law school at St. John's while working as a cop.

There is also an intriguing relationship with Hayes' sister-in-law, Caitlin (Mary B. Ward). Hayes' brother, Danny (David Cubitt), who is in jail, had abandoned her and their son emotionally. Hayes tries to offer a strong male model for the boy.

I fear the ambiguities and undercurrent of the relationship with Caitlin are exactly the kind of thing that will get lost if Caruso, as executive producer, has his superhero way with the character.

As for Caruso, the actor, despite his mediocre record in feature films, he can still make the small screen tingle. A big part of it is in his voice -- an area of television acting little appreciated. His ability to modulate that instrument from tough-guy, in-your-face aggression to protective tenderness is the source of his appeal.

"Michael Hayes" is in a tough time period, Tuesdays at 9 opposite "Home Improvement" and "Frasier." But Caruso now has a real "single-character show," and he's got further control as an executive producer. If it doesn't succeed, he's going to have a hard time finding anyone else to blame.

'The Gregory Hines Show'

Sitcoms featuring single dads have become their own awful genre, with Tony Danza as the poster paterfamilias.

But, even if you have taken the vow never to watch another, break it to see "The Gregory Hines Show," premiering tonight on CBS. This is the sleeper sitcom of the new season.

Hines plays Ben Stevenson, a widower living with his 12-year-old son, Matty (Brandon Hammond). Ben, who works as an editor at a small publishing house, feels like he's ready to start dating 18 months after his wife's death.

Part of what makes this sitcom work is that the middle-aged man and the adolescent son are, in a way, both newcomers to encounters with the opposite gender, and they support each other almost as equals.

At the center of tonight's story is Ben witnessing his son's first innocent kiss and, then, waiting and waiting and waiting for Matty to come talk to him about it.

Doesn't sound like much, but the chemistry between Hines and Hammond sells it and then some. The kid is good, but Hines is marvelous. It's worth a tune-in just to see this world-class dancer doing a Cosby and making some moves while the opening credits roll.

'George & Leo'

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