Pedigree not worth too much

Preview: `Max Bickford' shows that Oscar-winning actors don't necessarily guarantee good TV.

September 22, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

With a cast that includes two Oscar winners in Richard Dreyfuss and Marcia Gay Harden, The Education of Max Bickford was one of the more eagerly awaited new dramas of the fall season.

But, based on the pilot that premieres tomorrow night at 8 on CBS, the series doesn't appear to be worth getting too excited about.

Dreyfuss plays Bickford, an American Studies professor at a small but prestigious college who is in a major life passage. Actually, make that several life passages.

After more than two decades of teaching at the college, Bickford is passed over for an endowed chair in favor of Andrea Haskell (Harden), a former student with whom he once had a sexual relationship.

Then Bickford's best friend on the faculty returns from an 18-month sabbatical with a new gender. The colleague who went on leave as Steve Bettis returned as Erica Bettis (Helen Shaver), and Bickford is having a hard time making sense of his feelings toward her.

Meanwhile, Bickford, who is a widower, finds out that his 19-year-old daughter - a college freshman who sings in a garage band - is pregnant. Poor Max barely has time to notice his 11-year-old son, who has his own problems trying to make the school basketball team.

The most promising aspect of the show is that it potentially has something to say about generations relating to each other in contemporary America.

Bickford teaches American history in the Cold War era, and there's a scene in the pilot where he becomes exasperated with his class and says: "In this country, there have been generation after generation of people willing to die for it. Is there anything you're willing to die for?"

The show's premiere in the wake of last week's terrorist attacks and President Bush's rhetoric of generational challenge is an accident of scheduling and history but one that could help the show connect with what many of us are feeling.

The problem is that the pilot plays so flat, safe and sappy. Blame the flat part on Dreyfuss, who seems to sleepwalk through the role wearing the same clothes he did in Mr. Holland's Opus, but showing none of the energy of that performance.

The safe and sappy parts involve the fairly heavy-handed message that this senior professor has so much learn to learn about life from those around him - especially his 11-year-old son. This is the white baby boomer male being "re-educated" by his transgendered colleague, his African-American boss (Regina Taylor), his former student (Harden), his teen-age daughter and 11-year-old son.

That might be a message worth arguing about. But I doubt many viewers will stick around long enough to hear it if Dreyfuss doesn't start delivering in the role.

Tomorrow's TV

What: The Education of Max Bickford.

When: Tomorrow night at 8.

Where: WJZ (Channel 13).

In brief: Baby boomer sociology and uninspired acting.

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