`Cane' has right stuff to be great

CRITIC'S CORNER -- TV

But stellar cast, intriguing theme fail to elevate show

September 25, 2007|By Verne Gay | Verne Gay,NEWSDAY

Cane should be one of the new season's most noteworthy shows.

Should, because Jimmy Smits is here, and so are Rita Moreno, Nestor Carbonell and Hector Elizondo. Should, because the themes are so expansive and the idea so compelling. Should, because the guy who produces this also created one of the better shows (American Dreams) of the past few years.

That's a lot of "shoulds."

Now, how about an "is" or two?

OK. In fact, Cane, premiering tonight at 10 on CBS, is one of the mysteries of the fall season, and (indeed) of TV's creative process. With this much talent poured into one hour, why does Cane feel so by-the-numbers?

Let's be clear here: Cane is not a bad show, and it's sporadically a good one. Merely, great expectations have not been met.

And what expectations: Smits could speak into a paper bag and make the bag seem interesting; Carbonell (the weaselly "Other" Richard on Lost) is one of TV's best sinister characters. The theme of an expat Cuban family in the South Florida sugar/rum trade brims with potential.

But I have a pet theory about shows with double entendres for titles: They're usually bad. Not always, but usually. In this case it's "Cane," as in "sugar," and "Cane" (or Cain) as in fratricide, or at least the potential for it. That's both a pun and a red flag.

The setting is the Florida cane country, filled with big money, racial animus and political intrigue. Pancho Duque (Elizondo) is patriarch and lord of a 175,000-acre spread who also kicks out a mighty fine brand of rum called El Duque; Pancho's a tough bird and proud Cuban exile who's fought a raging border battle of his own with the Samuels family, neighbors who want to buy out the Duques, but who also have a lot of history to answer for. (Moreno plays Amalia, Pancho's wife.)

Ne'er-do-well son Frank (Carbonell) wants to sell out, but he also happens to be playing tonsil hockey with one of the Samuels women. His brother-in-law, Alex (Smits) - a stand-up guy with three great-looking kids and a super wife (Paola Turbay) - doesn't want to sell because sugar's the new oil. Besides, he despises the evil Samuels clan.

Alex wins out because Pancho - leery of his creepy loser natural son Frank - wants to retire, so he decides to deed control of his empire over to his adopted son, who is ... Alex (yes, Alex married Pancho's daughter, and is both brother and bro-in-law to Frank).

Cut to close-up of Frank, with a murderous look in his eyes.

You get the picture: There's a little Dallas here, a dollop of Falcon Crest, a sprinkling of Dynasty and a smidgen of The Colbys.

Prime-time soaps are fine; prime-time soaps with Smits are even finer, and better still with ethnic/Latino themes, and the sort of rich possibilities this setup promises.

Let's just hope Cane realizes that one of these days.

Verne Gay writes for Newsday.

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