Fox's `Embassy' is another `Ally'

March 11, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

A funny thing happened to a new Fox drama called Emma Brody on the way to its premiere tonight. It was retitled The American Embassy, and became a red, white and blue series as much about America's place in the world as it was the coming-of-age story of a young embassy worker in London named Emma Brody (Arija Bareikis).

The thing that happened was Sept. 11.

And so, six months after the terrorist attacks, Fox premieres The American Embassy tonight at 9 in Ally McBeal's old spot. Any and all similarities to the earlier workplace-centered drama featuring a young, single, attractive, professional woman trying to find herself are purely intentional. And that's part of the problem.

About 90 percent of tonight's pilot resembles Ally McBeal in too many ways for it to have been developed as anything but a replacement for that slumping series. But, then, at the end of the pilot something big happens - something with a totally different tone.

Rather than being a clever dramatic surprise, it feels more like an ending that was yoked on in an attempt to make the pilot more responsive to Sept. 11 and to shift the series in that direction.

I can't be more specific about the ending without totally ruining it. On the other hand, as much as I would like to let it be a total surprise, I need to mention it in general terms to explain what leaves me feeling less than enthusiastic about The American Embassy.

The series tries to tap one of television's most venerable narratives: a young, single woman ending a bad relationship and making a new start. That narrative dates at least back to 1970, with the arrival of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. It's at the start of Ally McBeal, too, for that matter.

This version has Brody quitting law school in the States for a job as vice consul in the U.S. Embassy in London. The impetus: She found her boyfriend cheating. Let's not question this premise too closely, OK? The point is she's setting off on what the Fox promotional materials call an "adventure."

In a very-Ally-like way, one of the first things that happens to Emma is an attractive man follows her into the restroom of the 747 carrying her to London and tries to interest her in having sex. Turns out he also works in the embassy; he's a CIA agent with an attache case chained to his wrist, which makes the sex thing kind of awkward.

And, then, there's Emma's Ally-like job situation. The first task she's assigned is to get a naked American who has encamped in the embassy lobby to relocate. Instead of moving him out, she winds up bonding with him. Give me a Q-U-I-R-K and a Y.

Her next task is to watch over the 12-year-old daughter of a prominent American woman involved in a custody battle with her non-American husband. And what does Ally - oops, I mean, Emma - do? She loses the kid while chatting up an attractive guy.

By the halfway point of the episode, Emma already has the dashing CIA guy and two British lords in hot pursuit, and her luggage hasn't even arrived from the States.

And, then something happens at the end of this semi-silly romp that's supposed to evoke resonances of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and leave the audience choked up with patriotism.

I don't think so. The American Embassy is the kind of television that seeks to exploit tragedy for its own commercial ends. I'm sorry, but that offends me.

New series

What: The American Embassy

When: Tonight at 9

Where: WBFF (Channel 45)

In brief: Ally McBeal joins the State Department.

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