`Sterling' could use a dose of originality

Series gets credit, but it lacks oomph

TV Preview

January 09, 2003|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Ireally wanted to get excited about Mister Sterling, the new NBC drama about a well-intentioned young man appointed to the U.S. Senate to replace a senior senator who died in office. Honest, I did.

The Mr. Smith Goes to Washington narrative, with its messages about the fundamental decency of the American character and the way our moral abundance periodically redeems institutional corruption in Washington, is crucial to our sense of identity as a nation. Watching a variation of that culturally loaded story line play out symbolically on the small screen each week is the kind of thing that makes writing about television such a pleasure.

But the first two episodes of Mister Sterling have left me feeling not very excited at all. There's nothing horribly wrong with this drama about William Sterling Jr. (Josh Brolin), a Yale law school grad teaching high school courses to inmates in a California prison who is suddenly appointed to the U.S. Senate. In fact, the writing and acting are quite good.

Lawrence O'Donnell Jr., a writer for The West Wing and onetime aide to former New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, created the series. So it's no surprise that the writing is both strong and in-the-know about life on Capitol Hill.

Nevertheless, it's still a cut below The West Wing, probably because it hasn't gone through the word processor of creator Aaron Sorkin as almost every script for The West Wing does whether Sorkin has writing credit or not. The big difference is in dialogue: Speech in The West Wing is as rich, elevated, dense and rhythmic as that of a stage play. Here, it feels thinner and more like the standard fare of network drama.

Next week's episode does a much better job than the pilot of making you feel as if you are behind closed doors as a split Senate finds out Sterling is an Independent and not a Democrat as everyone had assumed because of his father's long career as a Democratic senator. O'Donnell cleverly plays off the real-life story of Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords' headline-making switch in May of 2001 from Republican to an Independent and caucuses with the Democrats. Nonetheless, there's a feeling of been there, done that much better, in series like NBC's The West Wing.

As for the acting, while Brolin is nothing special, William Russ as Sterling's battle-wizened legislative aide, and Audra McDonald as his chief of staff, are a cut above most of what you'll see on network TV on a Friday night. But, again, the overall level of acting is not the caliber of series like NYPD Blue, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, 24, The Sopranos or Six Feet Under.

The most promising aspect of the series involves its relative youth. While The West Wing speaks mostly to viewers of Baby Boomer age and older, Mister Sterling, with Brolin as its hero, has the potential to connect with viewers in their 30s and late 20s as well.

I will root for anything on television that might make younger viewers as interested in politics and public life as winning the hand of Joe Millionaire or The Bachelorette. I just don't think Mister Sterling is original or compelling enough to do that.

Premiere

What: Mister Sterling.

When: Tomorrow night at 8.

Where: WBAL (Channel 11).

In brief: Been there, done that much better with Mr. Smith and President Bartlet.

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